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AIS: Clean it up: Still too many contaminated boats coming into Beltrami County waters, officials say

Emily Powers, a watercraft inspector for Beltrami County, checks a boat at the public access on Grace Lake. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- They don’t belong here, and getting rid of them is impossible.

The threat of zebra mussels in Beltrami County, which led authorities late last summer to mark a number of lakes and rivers as infested with the invasive species, doesn’t appear likely to fade. Especially not, county officials say, with contaminated boats, docks and trailers continuing to slip in and out of the water.

“Once zebra mussels are in a water body, they’re there,” Bruce Anspach, aquatic invasive species lake technician for Beltrami County Environmental Services, said Tuesday. “You can’t get rid of them. All you can do is sit and watch.”

Indigenous to lakes in southern Russia, zebra mussels are small, about an inch across, with shells decorated usually with brown and yellow stripes. They travel by attaching stubbornly to watercraft or by concealing themselves in the ballast water of ships.

In their new environments, zebra mussels eat food particles once reserved for fish and other small animals. They smother native mussels to death. They latch onto rocks and recreation equipment in the water, their shells a threat to cut swimmers.

Zebra mussels are but one in a growing list of invasive species -- including Asian carp, faucet snails and Eurasian watermilfoil -- decimating Minnesota lakes.

Anspach said inspectors last month reported 69 contaminated watercraft -- not all of them harbouring zebra mussels -- out of the 2,000 total watercraft inspected at public access points in Beltrami County.

“It’s actually a really high threat level,” he said. “It’s probably not a big thing if one person transports a little water, but when you have 100 people transporting a little water, it adds up quickly.”

Attention to invasive species was heightened this boating season, after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in September declared Cass Lake, and the family of lakes and rivers it ajoins, as infested with zebra mussels.

A team of 33 inspectors monitor some of the major public access points across the county, and last month, sensors that record boaters and instruct them to inspect their watercraft were installed at Grace Lake and Big Turtle Lake.

Anspach said the majority of non-local boaters he has met come to the area’s lakes annually, and most are committed to taking care of the water.

The most common culprits, Anspach said, are locals “who come to the same lakes all the time,” and might not think about inspecting and cleaning their watercraft.

“It’s as simple as looking over the boat, draining it, and making sure there’s nothing there that shouldn’t be,” he said.

The aggressive arrival of zebra mussels, and the questionable cleaning habits of boaters, are typical not just in Beltrami County, but across the Great Lakes region.

At the end of its special session this month, the Minnesota Legislature repealed a measure that, starting July 15, would have required drivers pulling a watercraft to complete aquatic invasive species training and display a decal on their trailer. Lawmakers instead passed a provision, effective starting in 2016, that requires people seeking watercraft licenses to sign off that they understand laws regarding aquatic invasive species.

Even without the training and decal measure, Anspach said the spread of zebra mussels in Beltrami County still can be slowed, perhaps stopped. Many of the lakes declared infected actually are zebra mussel-free -- they were marked that way only because they share water with the downriver Cass Lake.

“Zebra mussels can’t go upriver themselves,” he said. “They need our help somehow.”

 
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