AIS remains thorn in DNR’s side, but progress made

MARSHALL – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last summer turned up the heat on boaters and anglers in an effort to curb the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS).

Programs were implemented, education and enforcement was elevated and fines for offenders went up.

But has it made a difference?

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said dealing with AIS includes individual responses to the three main problems: plants, zebra mussels and Asian, or silver, carp.

Zebra mussels are on top of the DNR’s hit list. Once established in a body of water zebra mussels can multiply and impact both the ecology and the recreational experience of people using a lake or river. Zebra mussels, which are about the size of a finger nail, are often transported from lake to lake by boaters.

“You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about zebra mussels,” Landwehr said.

Zebra mussels have been discovered in various lakes across the state, and on Aug. 2, a watercraft inspector found Eurasian watermilfoil and zebra mussels attached to the trailer of a boat on Lake Bemidji. Also, a recent road check at St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park in Washington County found 21 percent of the 62 vehicles with watercraft or water-related equipment checked were violating state AIS laws, the DNR said. And a road check near South Long Lake in Crow Wing County found seven of 22 vehicles with watercraft or water-related equipment inspected resulted in an AIS violation rate of 31 percent.

Landwehr said many boaters and anglers are most concerned with zebra mussels and also have a renewed concern about Asian carp, mostly in eastern Minnesota, but here in southwest Minnesota as well.

He said zebra mussels present a more daunting challenge to the DNR since the primary source of movement is people, whether by boats and trailers or buckets, or movement of lake equipment like docks and boat lifts.

“When you think about the nature of that vector of human movement, there’s almost no way to directly confront that,” Landwehr said. “We can’t put a check station at every lake, we can’t inspect every boat lift.”

He said the strategies put forth in confronting zebra mussels is public education, followed up by enforcement and penalties, and boat inspections and decontaminations.

The state Legislature last year approved $8 million to implement those strategies, and “given the amount of money we got and the nature of the problem, I think we’re doing a good job,” said Landwehr. “Could we do more with more money? Absolutely. But I think we’re getting the sort of change in human behavior we need. Last year, based on inspections, there was just about a 20 percent non-compliance – like people leaving with vegetation – that’s a terrible statistic. If you look at this year, it’s 10 percent. On one hand that’s too high and still unacceptable, but we have reduced that number by half.”

With a few exceptions, state law prohibits transportation of all aquatic plants to help prevent the spread of Eurasian watermilfoil and reduce the risk of zebra mussels being transported while attached to aquatic plants, and the penalties are rather high.

The transportation of aquatic plants, except as allowed in statutes, carries a $100 civil penalty or misdemeanor; transporting zebra mussels and other prohibited species of animals carries a $500 civil penalty or misdemeanor, and the act of placing or the attempt to place into waters a boat, seaplane, or trailer that has aquatic plants carries a $200-$500 civil penalty).

Nearly 150 watercraft inspectors have been stationed around the state this summer to help stop the spread of AIS.

“I think it comes down to an awareness of the issue,” Landwehr said. “We’re getting people to take action, and that’s an important step. The fact that you might get a fine if you don’t take the right step, that’s the only thing that will motivate some people – the risk of punishment. It’s basic human behavior – you teach them to know there are going to be consequences if you do the wrong thing.”

Minnesota boaters are required by law to:

Clean boat by removing plants, zebra mussels and other prohibited invasive species from watercraft, trailer, anchor and all water-related equipment before leaving any water access or shoreland.

Drain water-related equipment (boat, ballast tanks, portable bait container and motor) and drain bilge, livewell and baitwell by removing drain plugs before leaving water access. Keep drain plugs out and all water-draining devices open while transporting watercraft.

Dispose of unwanted bait, including minnows, leeches and worms, in the trash.

With respect to Asian carp, Landwehr said control means trying to stop the movement. He said the long-term solution is not about preventing the spread as much as it is about trying to slow the spread as much as possible through research.

“We’ve got some very sensitive spots in southwest Minnesota where infestation could occur by fish breaching a watershed,” Landwehr said. “The (Windom fisheries) staff down there did some remarkable work to identify where the watersheds come together; because it’s so flat there are places where water can flow from one watershed to another and establish that aquatic connection that would allow silver carp to get out of a watershed and into the Minnesota River.”