If you’ve lived in lakes country for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard about aquatic invasive species--the small and oftentimes microscopic plants and animals that inhabit lakes throughout the country. In the midst of all the other signage you pass each day, you’ve undoubtedly seen the, “Stop aquatic hitchhikers!” billboards and may have noticed the warning signs posted at the entrance points to local lakes.
However, before you head out onto the water this spring and summer, grab a cold beverage and take a moment to refresh your knowledge of why those billboards and signs exist.
Aquatic invasive species (AIS) are, at their core, simply nonindigenous plants and animals that find their way into bodies of water. However, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there’s much more to them than that.
These species can, according to the USDA webpage, “threaten the diversity or abundance of native species, the ecological stability of infested waters, and/or any commercial, agricultural, aquacultural, or recreational activities dependent on such waters.”
And that’s exactly what Karl Koenig, AIS Coordinator for Becker Soil & Water Conservation District, said is happening to the lakes in Becker County.
“Very broadly, invasive plants--like Eurasian watermilfoil, flowering rush and invasive macroalgae like Starry Stonewort--can affect boating and swimming and water recreation,” he explained. “Invasive animals, then--like the zebra mussel or spiny waterflea--can affect the plankton populations in lakes, lead to changes in water quality, impact the lake food chains or lead to increased plant growth. So, they can also affect recreational use of lakes.”
Tera Guetter, an administrator at the Pelican River Watershed District and a former president of the Becker County Coalition of Lakes Association, explained that this change in recreational use can, in turn, heavily impact the economy.
“The lakes in our area are more than economic engines,” she said. “People are retiring here and younger professionals are wanting to stay here and raise their families. So, for us, water has always been very important.”
In addition to the recreational ramifications, Guetter explained that AIS can cause ecological changes, too.
“Different species have different impacts,” she said. “In some lakes, the invasive species have established themselves and can then provide some sort of habitat for fisheries but, in some, invasive species will take over the lake. For example, zebra mussels can attach to plants. So, if you like to fish and are looking for those weed lines, the mussels will weigh those plant lines down and reduce the habitat for the fish.”
In short, from reducing fish habitats to changing the very composition of the lakes they infest, AIS can greatly impact the ecology and recreational usability of lakes, hurting the economy of towns that depend on lake usage.
“Invasive species affect the ability to use motorized boats, to swim, to fish,” Koenig said. “Our county’s lakes are a tremendous asset that we’re trying to protect the best we can.”
So, now that you know why it’s important to halt the journey of AIS through our lakes, what steps do you need to take before--and after--plunging your boat into the water?
According to Koenig, “It’s fairly simple. If it didn’t come from the lake you’re visiting, don’t put it in the lake.”
Three steps--cleaning your watercraft, draining water-related equipment and disposing of unwanted bait--are required by law. Another step, drying your equipment, is also important to keep in mind, Koenig said.
Before taking to the water, then, remember to:
- CLEAN your watercraft. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), make sure you clean “all visible aquatic plants, zebra mussels and other prohibited invasive species from watercrafts, trailers and water-related equipment before leaving any water access or shoreland.” Koenig added that Becker County offers a decontamination service, which consists of a portable pressure washer containing hot water. He explained that the hot water removes and kills invasive species, many of which are microscopic and likely won’t be noticed by the naked eye.
- DRAIN any water-related equipment. The DNR website explains that this step includes draining your boat, ballast tanks, portable bait containers, motor, bilge, livewell and baitwell by removing drain plugs before leaving a water access or shoreline property. The DNR also instructs lake-goers to “keep drain plugs out and water-draining devices open while transporting watercraft.”
- DRY your aquatic equipment. Koenig explained that, while you aren’t required to dry your equipment by law, thoroughly drying it after leaving the lake adds an extra level of assurance and reduces the risk of transporting an invasive species. The DNR added that, especially after leaving lakes known to be inhabited by zebra mussels and spiny waterfleas, you should spray your equipment with high-pressure water, rinse with very hot water and dry the equipment for at least 5 days. Docks and lifts, on the other hand, must be dried for 21 days prior to being moved to another body of water.
- DISPOSE of all unwanted bait in the trash--not in the lakes or on the ground, Koenig said. The DNR reminds boaters that, “It is illegal to release bait into a waterbody or release aquatic animals from one waterbody to another.”
Whether you’re docking your boat for the weekend or heading down the road to another lake, remember that a few simple steps can help preserve your favorite lakes.
“If you tie your boat up for a week at your house, for example, zebra mussels can attach to that, so lakeshore property owners can also contribute to the spread of invasive species,” Koenig explained. “But, even if you’re just going a few miles from one lake to another, lakes are really complex. What could be a big problem in this lake, well--the lake right down the road could have a different chemistry and might have a different outcome if an invasive species was introduced there. Due to the complexity of the lake ecosystems, we can’t fully anticipate the long-term consequences of the introduction of an invasive species. So, play it safe and try to keep the lakes how they are.”
While every lake-goer can get involved in the fight against spreading invasive species by properly caring for aquatic equipment, there are also opportunities to get more direct, hands-on experience within Becker County and across the state of Minnesota.
According to Koenig, it’s important for the community to be aware of the presence of invasive species in local lakes because of the impact such species have on the surrounding area.
“Water recreation is very important for local businesses in Becker County and it’s a rich, important local tradition,” he said. “Plus, the economic impact is powerful. There wouldn’t be a town here if Detroit Lake wasn’t here--we underestimate it. But, to some people, it’s the idea that the lakes deserve some respect. The lakes have provided their fun, their enjoyment and their economic stability, so they don’t want them to bear the burden of these species.”
With that in mind, Becker County is currently looking for Seasonal AIS Inspectors to educate the public on invasive species prevention practices, to conduct watercraft inspections and to deny lake access or direct a watercraft to decontamination if an AIS is present. Applications are available on the Becker County website.
In addition to local efforts, a new statewide effort will launch for the first time this year.
Megan Weber, Aquatic Invasive Species Extension Educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, explained that the new AIS Detectors program will allow participants across the state to work hand-in-hand with the DNR.
“The program was developed after we recognized an unmet need for a consistent, statewide monitoring program to watch for these invasive species,” she said. “It provides a strong connection to the DNR, because Detectors can actually help and get to know their AIS specialists. They also learn how to provide good, quality reports to the DNR and have the opportunity to work on education, outreach, research and other projects that may come up.”
Participants in the grant-funded program must be 18 years or older and are required to engage in one online training course as well as one in-person workshop prior to beginning their work as a Detector. A $175 fee is required, as well, but scholarships are available to those that cannot afford to pay the fee.
Online registration is still open--with a Detroit Lakes workshop date set for May 4--and Weber said that, although many participants are those involved in lake associations or nature organizations, any nature enthusiast is encouraged to register. For more information or to register, visit https://www.maisrc.umn.edu/ais-detector.
“You would make a great Detector,” Weber said, “if you’re someone who is excited about being outdoors and who loves the lakes and nature in Minnesota.”