Minnesota will lead a national discussion in January aimed at answering one question: Can redesigning boats better protect our lakes and creeks from invasive species?

A summit, organized in part by the state of Minnesota and one Lake Minnetonka marina, will bring together industry experts from across the country to discuss if changing how boats are designed and built could slow the spread of invaders like zebra mussels from one waterway to another.

"We all have one common denominator — we want to have a better resource in the future," said Tonka Bay Marina owner Gabriel Jabbour, who spearheaded the idea.

The summit, to be held Jan. 27-28 in Las Vegas, is sponsored by Minnesota and Jabbour's marina along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Manufacturers Association. That public-private partnership is critical, Jabbour said, to bringing together the industry. Before the registration deadline Jan. 5, nearly 100 boat manufacturers, conservation leaders, biologists and marina operators from across the country had signed up.

"If you can build a better boat, it makes it easier down the line," said Brian Goodwin of the American Boat and Yacht Council, which develops safety standards and is putting on the summit. "There's no silver bullet that will solve the problem. But this is part of it."

In Minnesota, which ranks No. 1 in the country for boat ownership per capita, any proposed ideas could have a big impact on the industry and the 2.3 million boaters. In recent years, boaters have seen more boat inspections and regulations related to better cleaning of boats when they enter or leave a waterway.

Now there's a shift to focus not just on boaters, but boat builders before boats leave the manufacturing floor.

"This is a critical piece; we need to look at and make sure we're doing all we can do to reduce the risk," said Ann Pierce, the state DNR's section manager of environmental management and protection services. "I think it will be extremely beneficial, and not just for Minnesota."

Changing pontoon design

Already, some products are being tested such as on wakeboard boats — which collect water to create huge wakes — by filtering water to keep microscopic zebra mussel larvae and other invasives out.

Pontoons — the fastest-growing sector of the boating industry — increasingly feature 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. If placed on Lake Minnetonka, it may never be able to leave it since it's illegal to transport contaminated boats.

"For a lot of companies, it's going to be a retooling," said Bob Menne, 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. "We take it as a very serious issue."

Leaders of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Water Sports Industry Association have said they prefer looking into voluntary design standards that companies can phase in instead of new government regulations.

The January summit isn't expected to bring new regulations, but the start of drafting possible recommendations.

More than a nuisance

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 well-known 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 200 lakes and rivers, and waterways connected to them, that have been designated as infested with zebra mussels by the DNR. The state has several other invasive species, and more expected to come.

That threat has triggered increasing boat inspections, roadside checkpoints, educational campaigns and other efforts to slow the spread of the invasive species. Now, experts want to include boat builders.

"They may just not be aware," Goodwin said of manufacturers helping prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. "The idea is to bring together the private sector with the government side. They're not always talking."

For more information about the summit or to register by Monday, Jan. 5, go to abycinc.org.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib