MARSHALL - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has gone all out in its efforts to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species in Minnesota waters but so far hasn't gotten the best results.
The DNR reported Monday the AIS violation rate among boaters so far this year is 20 percent, a number it says is unacceptable.
"That number is way too high, we know that," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told the Independent. "Obviously we want it be much lower than that, and I think we've got a lot of things going on to help lower it. The media attention about it should help us to get that number lower; I don't think anyone wants to deliberately spread these invasives, and if they hear about it or read about it, it might get them to think about it more. But there are people in some places who are not exposed to this kind of information. I presume those are the ones we're tagging now."
Landwehr said the three main bullets in the DNR's gun used to curb the spread of invasive are inspection/decontamination, education and enforcement. But the challenge is great, and it's one the DNR so far has failed to meet. And with some 850,000 registered boaters in Minnesota and more than 10,000 lakes to police, Landwehr knows it won't be easy to turn things around.
"We want to get it down to zero if we can," he said. "We're hopeful to see a significant decline during this boating season with more visibility, more roadside checks. With all these boats, 10,000 to 15,000 lakes, 3,000 public accesses and all the lakeshore owners with aquatic equipment, you can't mechanically devise a system where you'll be able to check everyone. We have to rely on personal responsibility to some extent, and that originates with people knowing what the problem is and what they need to do."
Increased AIS enforcement has been in effect since May 12 and will continue throughout the summer. The DNR said through June 6, conservation officers had dedicated about 3,200 hours to AIS enforcement, making more than 20,000 combined law and education contacts. During this time, 193 criminal citations, 463 civil citations, 975 written warnings and 267 verbal warnings were issued.
About 850 citations or warnings were issued to violators of Minnesota's AIS laws a year ago, the DNR said. That compares with 293 citations and warnings issued in 2010.
Those numbers beg the question: If the increased inspection, enforcement and education doesn't work, what's Plan B?
"If we don't see a decline in violations, we'll have to figure out what to do differently," said Landwehr. "We have education so people can understand the problem, we have inspections so people are altered to boat checks, and if we don't see a change in the violation rate we have to see which of those isn't working. The question is how long will we give it. Is a year enough? Two years?"
Landwehr said if changes will be made, it probably wouldn't be a complete overhaul to what the DNR is currently doing.
State funding that goes toward fighting AIS goes away next July, so the DNR will have to go back to the Legislature for funding any new plans. Some of the funding comes from a boat surcharge, which the DNR lobbied unsuccessfully to get increased last year. The Legislature did, however, agree to take a portion of funding out of the environmental trust fund to boost the program's budget from $4 million to $8 million.
"If we have to do something different, it might mean we rejigger what we're doing now unless the Legislature gives us some new tools," Landwehr said.
Under Minnesota law, it is illegal to transport invasive aquatic plants and animals, as well as water, from water bodies infested with zebra mussels and spiny waterfleas. Violators could face fines up to $500. Some penalty amounts will double beginning July 1.
To help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, anglers and boaters are required by law to:
Drain bait buckets, bilges and live wells before leaving any water access.
Remove aquatic plants from boats and trailers to prevent the spread of invasive species.
Pull the plug on their boat and drain all water when leaving all waters of the state.
Keep the drain plug out while transporting water-related equipment on roadways.
Local Conservation Officer Matthew Loftness said he's spending time in the field talking to anglers about AIS and reminding them what needs to be done to avoid being cited.
"I don't think it's that bad around here," said Loftness. "We're still having to do a lot of explaining, but the guys around here are kind of getting the point on drain plugs. We're making sure people are not taking any minnow water from the lake, making sure they drain all their water."
Loftness said most anglers have accepted the laws and are aware of the crackdown on transportation, but says education needs to continue for residents and out-of-state anglers as well.
"A lot of guys come from Okoboji or Spirit Lake in Iowa to fish in Minnesota at Shetek, or Sarah, or East Twin, wherever, and we need to let them know about this as well," he said.