DNR seeks more, tougher boat inspections

Anglers and other boaters visiting some of Minnesota’s most popular lakes this summer may encounter a lot more – and a lot more aggressive – inspections of their boats for zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species.

Boaters probably will face stiffer fines if they violate existing law requiring them to drain their boats and remove weeds from boats and trailers before they leave water accesses.

Another anti-invasive measure would rebuild the Coon Rapids Dam to maintain it as a barrier to stop voracious Asian carp from moving up the Mississippi River and into lakes and watersheds north of the dam.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, at left at head table,
briefs stakeholder group on legislative proposal.

Those provisions, and more, are part of a legislative and budget package of anti-invasives measures supported by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The proposals were developed by the DNR after a four-month stakeholder process in which the Freshwater Society took part.

Nineteen people – a fishing guide, a resort owner, the operator of a dock removal service, an executive of a boat manufacturer and representatives of groups such as lake associations, a resort industry trade organization, the Minnesota Association of Counties, Anglers for Habitat and the University of Minnesota Sea Grant program – met with DNR staff and brainstormed ways law changes and new enforcement strategies could prevent the spread of invasive species, especially zebra mussels.

Freshwater President Gene Merriam and communications director Patrick Sweeney represented Freshwater in the process.

Many of the stakeholder recommendations are included in a legislative package that Dayton and the DNR announced in mid-March.

It is probable that many policy provisions in the package will become law, and that boaters will see stepped-up inspections and enforcement at boat launches by summer, perhaps by the fishing opener.

But the funding mechanism Dayton proposed for the package is in doubt.

In his budget, Dayton called for increased surcharges on boat registration fees: $5 over three years for canoes, $15 for boats up to 17 feet and $20 for larger boats. He also proposed a $3 year increase in nonresident fishing licenses fees to help pay for the stepped-up fight against invasive species.

The boat registration and license increase would generate an additional $4 million over two years, doubling current DNR expenditures on invasives.

Leaders of environment committees in the Republican-controlled House and Senate support doing more and spending more to halt the spread of zebra mussels and other invasives, but they favor another funding plan.

They want to fund the invasive species effort with money from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which receives revenue from the state lottery.

At a March 16 briefing for members of the stakeholder group, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the DNR would prefer the fee increases because they would be a continuing source of funding that would not require legislative re-approval every two years.

The new anti-invasives measures proposed by the DNR, and their pricetags, include:

· $1.6 million over two years to significantly increase the time – an additional 12,800 hours a year – that conservation officers devote to enforcing anti-invasive laws and to upgrade the responsibility and authority of the inspectors who examine boats entering and leaving launch areas.

· $1.5 million to buy new portable decontamination stations that would allow boaters to wash their boats and trailers with high-pressure water heated to a temperature that will kill zebra mussels.

· $600,000 for grants to organizations fighting invasive plant species.

· $300,000 for an enhanced public education campaign on invasives.

Other provisions would double fines for violating laws on invasives and require training and permitting for people who install and remove docks.

At present, the seasonal inspectors at boat ramps are college interns who do not have legal authority to order boaters to submit to inspections. Under law changes proposed by the DNR, the inspectors still would not have arrest powers, but they could order to boaters to submit to inspections or keep their boats out of the water.

“We are going to inspection first, and education second,” said Luke Skinner, supervisor of the DNR invasives program. “It will feel a lot more like an inspection out there.”

Zebra mussels have been found in 19 inland lakes in Minnesota, parts of Lake Superior and several rivers, including the Mississippi and the St. Croix.

Zebra mussels are the DNR’s top priority at present, Skinner said. Asian carp, which can grow to more than 100 pounds and are ravaging the Illinois and lower Mississippi rivers, are the second priority.

One Asian carp was caught in the St. Croix River in 1996, and several were caught in 2008 in the Mississippi River near La Crosse. Skinner said DNR experts think there are not yet any reproducing Asian carp populations in Minnesota, but that it could be only a matter of time before they move up the Mississippi.

DNR officials have discussed the possibility of persuading the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the navigational lock at the Falls of St. Anthony in downtown Minneapolis to restore the natural barrier the falls once presented to the upstream migration of fish, Skinner said. “Right now, our fallback plan is the Coon Rapids Dam,” he said.