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Conservation Officer Julie Siems and Brady search for AIS on a boat. Dogs are being trained to detect zebra mussels to make AIS inspections easier. Submitted Photo

Boaters on local lakes still violating AIS laws

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Aquatic invasive species (AIS) violations have remained steady during the 2014 boating season, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

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"In our area, we're still running into a couple nights a week where there is someone in violation either with their drain plug in, or weeds on their trailer or even transporting zebra mussels. It's a steady average," said Lt. Robert Haberman, a water resources enforcement officer with the DNR.

In April, the DNR unveiled "Think Zero" as their new slogan for fighting AIS. It is the agency's hope to see no new AIS infestations in Minnesota lakes and rivers and zero AIS law violations by boaters. According to a July 10 DNR press release, too many boaters are still ignoring AIS laws.

In the release, the DNR reported that so far this year, 1,300 boaters have arrived at public water accesses with aquatic plants, invasive animals or water in their boats and equipment, as well as 2,600 boats that arrived with drain plugs in. In that time, 169 citations and 375 warning tickets were issued.

DNR Central Region Enforcement Manager Greg Salo reported a 26 percent violation rate at enforcement check stations during 2014, even though these AIS laws are more than 15 years old.

According to the press release, Minnesota has 175 water bodies infested with zebra mussels. Among those lakes is Gull Lake, as well as Lower Hay Lake and Cross Lake on the Whitefish Chain, which were confirmed infested in July 2013. These infestations occurred in spite of efforts by the DNR and lake associations to prevent their infestation, making AIS enforcement violations a very clear danger to these lakes.

"Invasives can disrupt our ecosystems and have an economic impact on lakes," Haberman said.

The DNR, Whitefish Area Property Owner's Association (WAPOA) and Gull Chain of Lakes Association have each taken special interest in AIS infestation prevention, including increasing watercraft inspections during key times, and putting money toward both inspections and portable decontamination units at lake accesses.

"The DNR does quite a bit. We hire government unit people to monitor it, and we also have our volunteers," said Joe Rodil, WAPOA's director of AIS.

"The main thing is the civil action program. We get a matching grant from the DNR, because the DNR hires inspectors. Then we also have supplemented that with the Lake Shore Police officers. They get more hours in checking boats. That's the main function, and of course, education," said Rosemary Goff, secretary/treasurer of the Gull Chain of Lakes Association.

Inspectors at public lake accesses or at checkpoints between bodies of water help to intercept boats that are in violation before they have the chance to reach a new body of water.

"There's always a dime a dozen that aren't going to follow the rules. That's why it's great when we're there, because inspectors make them pull their plugs ... I think people are becoming more educated," said Crow Wing County watercraft inspection program coordinator Michael Smith of Nisswa. "They are seeing inspectors every year, so they either have to comply or there's going to be a hassle every time they go out and try to recreate on the lake, because they are most likely going to run into inspectors."

Inspectors, whether police, county, DNR or volunteers, are looking for many of the same things. All water must be drained from boats. Boat plugs must be pulled before traveling from lake to lake. There cannot be any plants on boats or equipment travelling between different lakes. Haberman reminds boaters to slow down on inspections, and bring a flashlight if you will be getting off the lake in low light. Fines for violations vary according to violation.

"If you are caught transporting an invasive species ... in or on your watercraft, that would be a $500 fine. If you forget to pull your drain plug or you are transporting water, that's around $100, and if you are transporting a ... (native) lake weed, around $100," said Haberman. "You could face even higher penalties if you put a boat in or a piece of equipment with invasives attached to it to a noninvasive lake. You're talking in the thousands of dollars."

Some think there are too many warnings issued, or that the fines in Minnesota are not high enough.

"It appeared to me that they issued mostly warning tickets. It looks to me like this year they are actually ticketing people, but it's only $100 (for some violations). I say 'only $100,' because I was talking with a fellow from Wyoming, and in Wyoming for not pulling your plug it's $1,000 for the first time," Rodil said.

Goff, Rodil and Haberman said the most common violations are often the simplest, including failing to pull boat plugs and drain water. Rodil wanted to remind boaters that water needs to be drained from motors as well.

"What a lot of people aren't aware of when they come out of the lake is when they have their motor up they need to put the motor down to drain the lower unit. A lot of people don't know that and are surprised when they do put them down when water comes out," Rodil said.

Smith said locals and visitors alike are among the violators.

"There's nobody to point the finger at. We have boaters from the area we have issues with. We have boaters from Minnetonka. Everyone likes to point the finger, but it's a collective effort," Smith said.

Enforcement of laws is made difficult by many factors. On the Whitefish Chain alone, there are seven public ramps and many private lake properties. Enforcement can be expensive for a community, and manpower is not always available or affordable.

Though the Whitefish Chain and Gull Chain of Lakes are both already infested with zebra mussels, there are still other AIS which have not reached these lakes, such as Eurasian water milfoil and spiny water fleas. Those AIS are now on the lake associations' radar.

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