Facing little traffic and lots of fish, the only thing standing between angler Paul Martinson and Lake Minnetonka last week were two watercraft inspectors, asking him questions and scanning his boat before he fished for crappies.
But like many of Minnesota’s 2.3 million boaters, Martinson has reluctantly accepted the new routine.
“It’s a pain,” said the Dayton resident, adding that he changed his habits after he was fined $130 for not following rules on when to put in the boat’s drain plug. But “it is what it is.”
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, boaters are going to run into more watercraft inspectors this Memorial Day weekend — the unofficial kickoff to the boating season — as everyone from local groups to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boosts the number of inspectors and money spent to try to slow the spread of zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species.
From Lake Minnetonka, one of the state’s busiest lakes, to Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes, researchers are donning scuba gear and boarding kayaks to track down the earliest signs of invasive species. Other lake associations are focusing on educating the public, even getting restaurants to print place mats with details on invasive species.
While some critics say the state isn’t doing enough, the new measures follow last year’s unprecedented new prevention efforts that some boaters saw as an affront to unfettered access to public waterways.
“The demand for greater protection of water is very high,” said Joe Shneider, president of the homeowners association at Christmas Lake, which is next to Lake Minnetonka. “We’re just turning the corner on this ramp up on spending on this.”
‘What are lakes worth?’
Public concern and awareness have dramatically increased the last couple of years as invasive species such as zebra mussels have infested more Minnesota lakes. As a result, local funding to fight aquatic invasive species has increased by 40 percent over the past three years, with watershed districts, park districts, cities, counties and other local governments spending more than $5 million on it.
“The interest in this issue is rising each year,” said Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. “It will have devastating effects for everyone even if you don’t use the lakes.”
Losing water and fishing quality could put a dent in the state’s $11-billion-a-year tourism industry, which relies heavily on resorts.
“What are the lakes worth to Minnesota?” said Barb Halbakken Fischburg, president of the Lake Detroiters Association. “They support industry and jobs and tourism.”
This year, the DNR is boosting the number of inspectors to 150 statewide and piloting a new program with dogs trained to detect the tiny zebra mussels, the second state to do so.
Enforcement also could increase because all conservation officers have been trained in aquatic invasive species laws. Boaters who don’t clean off weeds, and pull the drain plug and drain water from bait buckets and livewells could be stuck with a ticket of $100 or more. Last year, more than 1,000 citations and 1,550 written warnings were given out.
It seems to have sent a message last year. The percentage of boaters not complying with aquatic invasive species rules dropped from 20 percent at the start of 2012 to 14 percent by the end of the year.
“We’re going to have a strong effort out there,” said Maj. Phil Meier, operations manager for the DNR enforcement division.
In outstate Minnesota, more lakes associations are organizing aquatic invasive species prevention efforts or forming coalitions to pool resources and ideas. In the Twin Cities, Carver County plans to create the first regional inspection station later this summer, requiring Christmas Lake boaters to go to Lake Minnewashta to get inspected.
And in the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, an extra $250,000 is going toward anti-invasive species efforts this year, more than doubling the number of lakes that have watercraft inspections. Crews are also scuba diving and scanning lakes in kayaks for the earliest signs of invasive species, as well as testing efforts at reducing the milfoil and zebra mussels already on Lake Minnetonka. On June 1, the Watershed District will pilot a new program to speed up inspections, tagging inspected boats before they leave.
“This isn’t rocket science,” said Forester, likening keeping boats clean to people washing hands to reduce the spread of illness. “If the boats are clean, they aren’t spreading it.”
A futile fight?
The poster child for the invasion is often the fingernail-size zebra mussel, which spreads to more Minnesota lakes each year. It can clutter beaches with razor-sharp shells, clog up motors and irrigation systems, and alter the ecosystem. But lake advocates also fear many more invasive species not yet in Minnesota such as hydrilla, often referred to as “milfoil on steroids.”
“Minnesota is at the top of the pack of what other states are doing, but it’s not enough,” said Dick Osgood, executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Association. “Invasive species are biological pollution that scares me more than anything else I’ve seen before. They’re just such wild cards.”
Although boaters like Martinson are skeptical that the extra efforts will make a difference at slowing the spread — zebra mussels are now in more than 100 lakes — they say they’re also resigned to the reality of constant inspections.
“They’re writing up tickets Up North. Even on the smaller lakes, you’re seeing a lot more DNR presence,” said angler Jeff Kasel of Brooklyn Center. “It’s just accepted.”
Other boaters say resisting the new inspections is as futile as fighting state fishing rules or speed limits. “If you’re on the lakes all the time, it’s routine,” said professional angler Trevor Baer of Anoka.
As he and friend Christopher Wellnitz of Apple Valley headed out to Grays Bay on Lake Minnetonka last week, they said they don’t want to see more public accesses gated off to control inspections as they are at Christmas Lake, but they do embrace extra DNR inspections as a way to preserve Minnesota’s precious lakes.
“Five minutes to make sure we have this beautiful thing — are you kidding me? That’s nothing,” Wellnitz said. “If we don’t do something, there won’t be anything for our kids.”