Published January 14, 2011, 12:00 AM

DNR's plan against zebra mussels takes form

State natural resource officials now have a plan to at least try to slow the spread of zebra mussels, fish-killing VHS virus, jumping Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species.

By: By John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Alexandria Echo Press

State natural resource officials now have a plan to at least try to slow the spread of zebra mussels, fish-killing VHS virus, jumping Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species.

The new plan – developed with the help of a citizen’s committee that met throughout 2010 – includes additional conservation officers to inspect boats and other vehicles that spread invasive species as well as increased fines for violations. The plan also calls for increased public education and more money to develop ways to fight back against invasives.

The DNR is considering regional “containment areas’’ around invasive hotspots and mobile inspection stations to check for aquatic invaders.

The agency released its still-developing plan Saturday at its annual “roundtable’’ convention in the Twin Cities. It will be presented to state lawmakers on Friday.

Although the state has some laws in place, the Department of Natural Resources has never developed a formal plan to deal with the increasingly rapid spread of invasives.

While lake associations, environmental and fishing groups have criticized the DNR for not moving fast enough against aquatic invasive species, “that’s not going to be the case anymore,’’ said Bill Meir, assistant DNR commissioner. “We are going to move.’’

The DNR also is looking at raising the state’s current $5 boat license surcharge earmarked for enforcement to bring in more money for inspections at boat landings at lakes and rivers known to be infested. That fee hasn’t gone up since 1993.

The DNR can move forward on parts of their plan on their own but will need legislative approval and funding for some new efforts.

“We’d need new authority to do containment zones [around infested lakes] or mobile inspection stations, but the rest we can do if we get the resources,’’ said Jay Rendall, the DNR’s invasive species coordinator.

While many of the species have come to Minnesota from foreign lands and waters by commercial transportation, such as ballast in ships, officials say it’s clear that those species are spread across the state, unintentionally, by ordinary people, especially boaters and anglers.

State law already requires boaters to remove all weeds from their boat and trailer when leaving a lake or river, drain all water from the boat and dump water from any bait buckets or wells. But there is inconsistent enforcement of the laws, and fines are low compared to fish and game violations.

While zebra mussels, quagga mussels, ruffe, spiny water fleas and other invasives have been well-known in the Twin Ports for decades, they are just starting to spread into Minnesota’s popular inland lakes, like Gull Lake near Brainerd and Lake Minnetonka in the Twin Cities. Minnetonka, for example, attracts tens of thousands of boats every summer, many of which also are trailered to other lakes.

Resource experts fear the species will damage native species, destroy habitat and diminish the state’s famous fishing.

Conservation activist Dave Zentner of Duluth said the solution lies in people changing personal behavior to prevent moving the species around, but also in strong regulations and innovative solutions that start to solve the problem. He cited Isle Royale National Park’s successful effort to decontaminate ballast water on its passenger ferry boats so they don’t carry hitchhiking invasive species out to the pristine island waters.

But Bill Wagner, a member of Anglers for Habitat, cautioned the DNR not to attempt to solve the problems on the backs of recreational boaters. He said all state citizens should help and that the federal government and shipping industry need to contribute more.

It’s believed many of the aquatic invasive species came to the region in the ballast of ships.

“What responsibility does the shipping industry have to clean up the spill [of species] that they have caused?” Wagner asked. “The cost and burden shouldn’t be placed only on people who trailer boats.’’

The Duluth News Tribune and the Echo Press are Forum Communications Company newspapers.