The young Department of Natural Resources (DNR) representative who stopped me at the ramp to check for invasives this week gave me the all clear and turned to walk away. Looking over his shoulder he said, "By the way — fines will double beginning July first."
The fines he mentions include being caught with weeds on your trailer. Any aquatic weeds. Fining anglers $100 for dragging around a piece of coontail, which is not invasive, sounds a tad regressive to me. So I called the DNR enforcement division and talked to a very polite gentleman named Luke Skinner, the Invasive Species Program Supervisor. He explained that fines for "failures" to remove drain plugs or remove weeds (any aquatic weeds) dangling from trailers or sitting on the deck of your boat will increase from $50 to $100. Anglers caught with an invasive cling-on or zebra mussel attached while backing a trailer in face fines rising from $250 to $500. This is all explained in a notice posted on the DNR website. Fines double again for any second offense. Two forgetful episodes with the drain plug, in other words, could cost you a grand total of $300. Caught backing in with invasives on your trailer twice and the total jumps to (at least) $1000.
"We have the authority to set up check stations at or near public access sites," Skinner said. The DNR can now "require mandatory inspections of water-related equipment before a person places or removes equipment into or out of a body of water" (boats, docks, boat lifts, recreational gear, etc.). They also have the authority "to set up inspection stations at centralized locations to cover multiple lakes" and to "delegate this authority to local governments that have an inspection plan." This means they (and, in some instances, the local constabulary) can stop you anywhere, any time, and inspect your boat and trailer with or without probable cause. In other words, you're probably going to get inspected a number of times this year if you spend any time at all towing a boat around in Minnesota. (I've already been inspected three times.)
If you fish in the same lake every day and never go anywhere else, which means you spread no invasives at all, never fear. You'll get fined right along with the rest of us for leaving a plug in. As explained, "you can get fined for any kind of aquatic weed hanging off your (boat or) trailer," Skinner said. Makes sense. (In Minnesota.) Could be a piece of coontail, cabbage, or other native, non-invasive species — that gets you fined here. Skinner said they couldn't expect the populace to learn to identify the species and select for it. To be fair, it only takes a small, literally invisible piece of Eurasion milfoil to allow it to spread to other waterways, according to the science at hand.
And therein lies the problem. You can be given a clean bill of health by an inspecting officer and yet go forth spreading milfoil to other lakes anyway. Zebra-mussel veligers (larvae) are planktonic and microscopic, meaning they drift unseen throughout the water column and cling to, among other things, wet anchor ropes which, under many conditions, can stay wet for days or weeks. Which raises obvious questions: Is any of this enforcement going to be effective? Or are taxpayers simply agreeing to punish themselves for something that is A/ Not their fault, and B/ Inevitable?
To answer we need to know if anglers really can do anything effective to stop the spread of milfoil or zebra mussels. When asked that question, Skinner replied the process could be slowed dramatically, but fell short of saying it could be stopped. I agree with him. Meaning the answer is an emphatic "no" that can't really be disputed by current scientific data. The DNR officer inspecting your boat has no idea if it has viable zebra-mussel veligers or tiny segments of Eurasian milfoil on it when he gives you the all clear. Both are microscopic or practically so. You could methodically scrub every inch of your boat after every visit to the lake with absolutely no assurance from the best scientific methods available that you've removed every villainous microscopic entity.
"Veligers are so fragile they dessicate immediately when dry," Skinner said. But he also noted that they toughen dramatically when they begin to form a shell, which happens while the mussel is still microscopic. Which does nothing to refute my point. Any of us likely to spread zebra mussels only have to hit the water again before stowaway mussels with brand-new shells dry out completely, which could be days or weeks for covered boats with a damp deck, boats left in the rain, etc. That's just as likely to happen after passing inspections as not. Logic insists the macroscopic specimens inspectors can see probably represent a small portion of the threat.
Biologists say it's "unlikely," but not impossible, that veligers and milfoil can be transported on fur or feathers. We've had Eurasian milfoil in our waters for over half a century and zebra mussels for almost a quarter century. The disasters we were warned of 20 years ago certainly seem unrealized, to say the least, today. The big costs involve clogged water intakes, but these invaders do displace native species. The disappearance of native species is absolutely tragic and a threat to diversity. But beside the point. Never mind how dangerous these invasives may or may not be. If anglers can do nothing to completely stop the spread of these things from reaching their ultimate saturation point, the only questions left are: Why are fishermen and boaters facing increased fines for something they cannot stop, that is not their fault, and whose fault is it?
The people that brought us zebra mussels, lamprey eels, quagga mussels, gobies, and spiny water fleas own giant ships. They bring us these wonderful gifts because, for decades, while completely aware of the lamprey problem and the regulations against dumping ballast in the Great Lakes, they dumped it there anyway. We can hardly blame them for not always exchanging at sea, a process that, under certain conditions, endangers the ship. They can, however, treat ballast at sea, yet continued to avoid the dratted inconvenience of treating or exchanging ballast several miles out, as the law requires. It costs taxpayers $5.7 billion per year to deal with zebra mussels alone. Sure, these companies have millions at their disposal to lobby Congress in the effort to ensure they get better representation than the rest of us. Some of them spend billions lobbying. Obviously, asking them to spend an additional few thousand to treat ballast at sea is just too much. Besides, fines levied to ships that dump ballast water in US ports without reporting it to the Coast Guard just went up. They can now be fined a maximum of $27,500. Hopefully, that costs more than treating the ballast.
Does that fine mean more to them than $100 or $300 means to you? That's what I thought. The quest for profit at our ports does not confer the right to burden taxpayers with excessive costs associated with that quest. (Most moms do, eventually, teach children to clean up their own mess, in average American homes.) What if every time one of us gets caught with a dandelion on our trailer, the Minnesota DNR sends a $1000 fine to a company that ships on the Great Lakes? Now that sounds fair. It's like parking-meter change to them, anyway.
When I pointed out that taxpayers (150 new inspectors will be hired by the DNR this year), fishermen, and boaters were being punished and forced to pay for the sins of huge multinationals, Skinner said, "We're aware of how the mussels got here, and we're sensitive to that." I believe him. He didn't make up the rules. It's just his job to enforce them.
How do the new regulations compare with other Great Lakes states? Michigan is literally surrounded with big water and invasives, yet, does not pass out fines at all to anglers or boaters with weeds on their trailers. They post signs about invasives at boat ramps that use words like "please" and "thank you." Skinner said it was because the Michigan DNR has been decimated by budget cuts. I didn't bother calling Michigan to ask if they disdain check points because they can't afford them or for other reasons. (Check points could, after all, be a money-making proposition.) In Wisconsin officers are obliged to warn anglers at least once before they can levy fines 2 to 5 times less than those that will be imposed in Minnesota after July 1. Skinner says some states out West, however, impose even more stringent fines than Minnesota.
But forget all that. The worst thing? After a grueling day on the water, with the sun down, armed with a flashlight, you're charged with finding and removing every piece of weed that every angler removed from a lure that day and threw onto the deck of your boat, and every piece of grass dangling behind a wheel, every sliver of mung you didn't notice clinging to the net, etc. Remember: It doesn't have to be an exotic species. It can be any species of aquatic weed. And if your bait well won't drain completely, better get to work on that. Water that won't drain? Get bailing. Seems a shop vac is in order, too, if you're coming to the Gopher State to fish this year. Might as well toss in a sleeping bag while you're at it.
Ok, ok. I exaggerate. Sometimes, when weeds aren't being blown into shore, the ship comes out of the water clean as a whistle and you're on your way. Skinner assured me the DNR is not out to write tickets, and I believe him. I've been inspected three times now, and each time I noticed a dried up piece of weed or two on my deck, but I wasn't fined. Education, cooperation, and common goals are the hope, Skinner says. But he also said it would be "up to the discretion of the officer" whether to write you up for a tiny piece of coontail hiding under your anchor. Checkpoints may take on a different ambience. Meaning unless you spend twenty minutes or so cleaning your boat in the dark at the ramp, chances of getting fined may go up. (Depending on the mood of the officer in question, maybe way up. Can't we all just get along?) Some may reconsider going fishing after being herded into check points and fined. And that would be a shame for tourism, for the fishing industry, and for the fish themselves which, sad though it is to admit, often depend on license fees and angler participation these days to continue existing.
I've spent longer than 30 minutes cleaning things up on the ramp at weedy lakes only to come home and find specs of weeds I missed on the deck, on the anchor rope and elsewhere. So, assurances from MN DNR YouTube efforts aside, how much time is really required to avoid fines? It hurts in ways hard to describe, after ruining another perfectly good shirt while lying on your back to hunt for weeds, when you get fined anyway.
Fishing is getting expensive enough as it is. The tourism ads ask you to come to Minnesota with the promise of great fishing. That much is true. But they may neglect to remind you to bring an extra wad of cash to cover potential fines. Honestly, fines historically make up less than 1% of the revenue for the Game and Fish Fund in Minnesota, and I really don't expect that to change (much). And we all need to work hard to keep invasives from spreading. I'm not opposed to that. But introducing excessive fines and invasive tactics that threaten angling tourism — one of the biggest employment drivers in the state? (Minnesota Calling estimates the fishing industry creates over 49,000 jobs in Minnesota, more than mining, construction, and energy production combined — jobs as "sustainable" as they come.) Fining anglers for having non-invasive, non-threatening, native species on their trailers? To cover damages caused by the wealthiest entities on earth?
Sounds like business as usual for the little guy. Maybe that quiet lobby of 49,000 people (easily over 150,000, counting immediate family members) has a word or two to say about who should pick up the tab for studying, legislating, cleaning up, and levying fines with respect to the spread of invasive species in Minnesota.