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Putting a stop to aquatic invasive species

Published (4/1/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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Vern Wagner, vice president of Anglers for Habitat, testifies before the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee March 24 in support of a bill that would modify non-native species provisions. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Aside from the state’s budget woes, invasive species is the biggest issue facing the Department of Natural Resources, according to policy and government relations director Bob Meier.

Rep. John Ward (DFL-Brainerd) is taking aim at combating aquatic invasive species such as Asian carp, Eurasian water-milfoil, Zebra mussels and the spiny waterflea.

Endorsed by the DNR, HF1162, which Ward sponsors, would significantly change recreation rules on and off Minnesota waters. It is the culmination of meetings with angling associations, cabin owners and the DNR.

“Some people will tell you it doesn’t go far enough; some people will tell you it goes too far, but we need to be proactive on these issues,” Meier told the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee March 24.

Approved by the committee on a split-voice vote, the bill’s next stop is the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee. Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) sponsors a companion, SF847, which awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Boaters would be required to obtain a free AIS decal from distribution points and attach it in plain sight on the watercraft prior to launching. The decal would contain the new rules associated with AIS prevention tactics.

The provisions, if enacted would become effective in time for the 2011 fishing opener, which would make educating the public a quick lesson in new water recreation laws.

Recommended changes include increased authority for boat inspections, stiffer penalties for AIS violations, required training for lake service providers, required education for watercraft owners and operators and streamlined permitting for AIS plant management activities. Current law applies to boating-related equipment. The definition would expand to “water-related” equipment, such as docks, rafts, vehicles and other equipment that comes in contact with water and could harbor invasive species.

Last year, a new law required boaters to drain water from live wells and bilges by pulling the drain plug prior to transporting boats. That law would be broadened to include draining water from portable bait buckets, too.

“I would think the bait buckets themselves could be an education tool,” said Committee Chairman Denny McNamara (R-Hastings).

Nets or other equipment used to harvest bait minnows from AIS-infested waters would not be allowed for use on any other water body. A tag would need to be affixed to the net to identify its limited use.

“If you’re using nets in Mille Lacs to harvest bait in the spring, you cannot take them to un-infested waters in the future. (You) will have to have a second set of nets,” said Luke Skinner, invasive species program supervisor with the DNR.

Trained inspectors would be allowed to inspect watercraft for aquatic invasive species anywhere. Officers also could pull someone over for hauling watercraft on public roads with the drain plug still engaged, which could result in a misdemeanor offense.

Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) is concerned about “heavy-handed” conservation officers. “You have a tremendous obligation at this point, if this bill passes, to do everything that we can to make sure that people are educated,” he told DNR officials. “I want to make sure that we allow people to make an honest mistake and not get the book thrown at them.”

Fines would double from last year to between $100 and $500. Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) said the fines were low in comparison to the great amount of harm that invasive species can do to a lake and the cost to eradicate. “It’s really not a lot (of money),” she said.

The DNR tracked 2010 enforcement operations and said of 7,053 people approached, 1,060 people received verbal or written warnings and 128 were cited for violations. Only one of the citations was for a criminal offense, said Maj. Rodmen Smith, DNR enforcement operations manager.

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