Crow Wing County redoubles AIS prevention efforts
County programming is watching carefully for starry stonewort
After COVID-19 successfully stole their audience for a year, the Crow Wing County Land Services Department is ramping up outreach to teach area children about aquatic invasive species.
Environmental Services Specialist and AIS Coordinator Nicole Erickson set up an informative display at Nisswa Lake Park after the Wednesday, July 21, weekly Nisswa Turtle Races for that very purpose.
"With COVID and everything, outreach took a dive because we couldn't get into the school systems and nobody really wanted to do events like that," Erickson said. "We're trying to broaden our horizons and trying to provide more of these events to the public so we can educate our kids and educate generations and families to keep their eyes on the water. The more eyes we have out there, the better chance we have of early detection and possibly eradication of some of these aquatic invasive species."
From the shade of a pavilion at the park, Erickson spent the afternoon inviting passing families to come observe specimens of various AIS, including zebra mussels, spiny water flea, faucet snails and starry stonewort, which Erickson said is the newest looming danger to area lakes and may be of greater concern than zebra mussels.
"It has been identified in only 18 lakes in Minnesota," Erickson said. "It was just confirmed in Leech Lake last week."
Starry stonewort is an invasive algae that forms dense mats that compete with native plants and interfere with boating and swimming. Erickson warned that the plant can pose serious threats to fish breeding habitat.
The dense "meadows" formed by mats of the invasive engulf some of the most ecologically sensitive portions of inland lakes. The state has an annual event in August geared toward preventing the spread of starry stonewort.
"We have the Starry Trek event in August where we ask the public to volunteer time on a Saturday to learn to identify aquatic invasive species," Erickson said. "Then we provide them with equipment to learn about this and follow a certain route I assign to check accesses for starry stonewort."
Erickson had samples of the namesake "stars" in a preservative as well as laminated samples of the tendrils they grow on. There were also samples of zebra mussels preserved in resin, spiny water fleas in a jar and other specimens for visitors to look at. Of course, there were also freebies like boating towels, literature, coloring books and crayons.
Erickson said the county is expanding its outreach and bringing education to people where they are this summer.
"We've started a pilot program this year handing out equipment kits to anglers and targeting fishing tournaments to provide them with the right equipment to dispose of bait properly and clean their watercraft correctly before going to another body of water," Erickson said. "We kicked off that pilot program (recently) at a student fishing tournament on the Whitefish Chain."
Her department is partnering with Nisswa and several other agencies to hold a nature camp the first week of August.
"It's a great opportunity for kids because we talk about water quality, aquatic invasive species, the Earth and the environment and how it's important for us to keep it healthy," Erickson said.
Crow Wing County employs 45 watercraft inspectors at 42 various water accesses. Erickson said it was one of the top watercraft inspection programs in the state.
"We're proud of that," she said.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.