The battle to protect Minnesota’s cherished lakes and rivers from ruinous invasive species such as zebra mussels has for years focused on cleaning and inspecting boats.
Now that high-stakes fight is shifting to boat design.
This week leaders in the boating industry will gather in Washington, D.C., to take the extraordinary step of examining how boats could be redesigned in ways that would make it harder for the aquatic pests to hide, even as inspections intensify for Minnesota’s 2.3 million boaters.
Gabriel Jabbour, a boat manufacturer who owns four marinas on Lake Minnetonka, has been one of the loudest voices calling for a fresh look at boat design.
“These are time bombs and they are a liability to the owners,” he said. “I believe this is a major consumer issue that no one is paying attention to.”
On Wednesday, the American Boat and Yacht Council, which develops widely used safety standards, will ask a national task force led in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring together everyone from boat builders to scientists to draft design standards to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species.
“I don’t think it’s been on their radar,” John Adey, the council’s president, said about manufacturers. “There could be simple solutions we haven’t thought about.”
For instance, on pontoons — the fastest-growing sector of the boating industry — it’s increasingly popular to have lifting strakes that run along the side to help it go faster and turn, allowing water skiing or tubing.
But that same part is often sealed at one end and left with a tiny drainage hole at the other end that fingernail-sized zebra mussels can get into, multiply rapidly and be difficult — if not impossible — to flush out.
That kind of pontoon, if placed on Lake Minnetonka, may never be able to leave it since it’s illegal to transport contaminated boats.
“The boating industry has been saying ‘we make boats, you clean them,’ ” said Jabbour, who’s on a state Department of Natural Resources committee on aquatic invasive species. “But with some minor modifications, we could make an enormous stride in the time it takes to wash and inspect boats.”
While some manufacturers may not welcome design changes, it’s something Bob Menne says he’s been doing for years.
He is the owner of Wyoming, Minn.,-based Premier Marine, the fourth-largest pontoon manufacturer in the nation and the only one, he said, to weld strakes and keels to keep out zebra mussels.
“There’s quite a few manufacturers that watch this very closely and do due diligence to minimize any of this stuff,” he said. “But then there are some manufacturers that don’t do as good of a job. I think a lot of these companies are not doing it because of ignorance; they haven’t thought of it.”
The spread of invasives
In Minnesota, invasive species aren’t just an annoyance but a threat to property values and the livelihood of many resorts and other businesses that depend on pristine lakes.
Zebra mussels, perhaps the most dreaded invasive species in Minnesota, can attach to boats, docks, rocks, native clams and other solid surfaces. They proliferate by the millions, cluttering beaches with razor-sharp shells, clogging motors, changing the habitat for fish and insects, and jamming intake pipes for water.
Lake Minnetonka is one of about 40 state lakes and rivers infested with zebra mussels; the DNR suspects another 100 waterways connected to them also are infested. But there are several other invasive species here, and more are expected to come. That threat has triggered increasing inspections at boat launches and roadside checkpoints, educational campaigns and other efforts to limit the spread.
While those measures are valuable, Jabbour said, the next step needs to include boat builders.
At Tonka Bay Marina on Lake Minnetonka, he pointed to water that shoots out of motors that could be self-draining, as well as the crevices of a fishing boat that he said could be welded together.
“The boats coming in better be easier to deal with,” he said.
The state DNR agrees and sent a letter to the national task force to support looking at boat designs. The DNR’s Ann Pierce said they’ll also be studying this summer the risk that residual water poses and how it can be minimized.
Boat industry changes
Menne, who’s on the board of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said he will bring up the issue at a Washington meeting Monday.
“It’s a high priority in Minnesota,” he said. “If [boat manufacturers] want to sell their products in Minnesota, they are going to have to make some changes.”
Leaders of Menne’s group and the Water Sports Industry Association say they prefer looking into voluntary design standards that companies can phase in over time instead of new government regulations.
“It serves our best interest for boaters to have a boat design that makes it easy to follow the [decontamination rules],” said David Dickerson of the marine association. “We want to make it simple for the boaters.”
Technology is also helping.
One product that’s being tested on wakeboard boats, which collect extra water to create huge wakes, filters water to keep microscopic zebra mussel larvae and other invasives out.
But that’s just one solution to one type of boat. Industry experts say it will take bringing the entire industry, government groups and environmentalists together to address such a widespread problem.
“This is a national issue and frankly, it’s an international issue,” said Michael Hoff, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest aquatic invasive species program coordinator. “Every corner of every state is potentially impacted by better boat standards.”