Points North: Should One Invasion Lead to Another?

It's important to protect our lakes, but should we have to sacrifice our right to refuse inspection to do it?
It's important to protect our lakes, but should we have to sacrifice our right to refuse inspection to do it?

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Years ago, when 20,000 latter day hippies known as the Rainbow Family traveled to the North Shore for their annual Independence Day campout, I was the editor of the Grand Marais newspaper and learned the State Patrol was stopping vehicles at random on Highway 61 as part of a stepped up enforcement effort for the event. My father was coming up to go fishing with me, so I thought it wise to give him some advance warning that he might get pulled over on his drive along the Shore.

Dad simply said, “I didn’t fight in a war to put up with that crap.”

A Korean War combat veteran, Dad knew the price of freedom and liberty. He had zero tolerance for anyone who intruded on what he’d earned the hardest way. Fortunately, he made it to our place without getting pulled over.

Dad came to mind when I first read about the DNR’s newest enforcement effort—boat ramp and roadside inspections of anyone who owns a boat. In order to control the spread of noxious invasive species such as zebra mussels and Eurasian water milfoil, the State has made it a crime to have any water or aquatic weeds on your boat or trailer. If a boat inspection finds you haven’t pulled your drain plug, dumped the water out of your minnow bucket or picked bits of weeds from the trailer axle, you will be fined. I wonder what Dad would think about that.

Like most lake-loving Minnesotans, I understand the introduction of invasive species may wreak havoc on our waters. Dense mats of Eurasian water milfoil choke out native vegetation and disrupt boating. Prolific zebra mussels may encrust nearly everything beneath the water’s surface, from bottom substrate to boat docks and lifts. Native plants and plants and animals suffer when invasives take hold.

Luke Skinner, invasive species program supervisor for the Minnesota DNR, says zebra mussels and other aquatic invasives are appearing in lakes with heavy recreational use, such as Minnetonka and Mille Lacs, leading officials to believe they are primarily spread by recreational boaters. It is much less likely that invasives travel to new waters as stowaways on ducks or other aquatic critters. This is why efforts to control their spread are focused on boaters. It important to note no one believes this new law will stop invasive species or prevent new ones from entering our state. The hope is the law will slow their movement from one lake to another.

Day users, the primary target of the current enforcement, are most likely to carry the larval stage of zebra mussels, which are free-swimming in the water. By pulling your boat’s drain plug, emptying the livewell and dumping the water out of your bait container, you are less likely to give them a free ride to a new home. One can agree this is a simple, common sense approach to curtailed their spread, but should not doing so constitute a crime? Skinner says that as an angler, he isn’t thrilled about the new laws, but he says it may be the way we need to do things in order to control invasives.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new law is the boat ramp and roadside inspections, where everyone owning a boating is essentially treated like a suspect. After all, police no longer do roadside checkpoints to look for people driving under the influence, conservation officers no longer have highway stops to look for game violators and must also knock first before entering an ice-fishing shanty. Why then, are we doing roadside checks to look at boats?

Rod Smith, DNR Enforcement spokesman, says the agency has consulted the state Attorney General’s office and county attorneys to make sure the new checkpoints are legal. Instead of using licensed peace officers to do the inspections, they have added a new, certified inspectors to look at the boats. If they find a weed or a minnow bucket full of water, they can call a peace officer, likely a conservation officer or sheriff’s deputy, to write a violation ticket.

As a boater, you do not have the right to refuse an inspection. The new law’s authority is such that boaters have to submit to inspections in order to operate a boat on public waters. The inspection can occur when you are going to a lake or after you’ve left the water. Refuse and you will be denied public access to a public resource. Also, while the boat inspection is ostensibly to look for compliance to the invasive species rule, the inspector may turn up other violations and contact a peace officer to take enforcement action. So we now have a situation in the state where anyone hauling a boat can be pulled over and inspected and, even if you are in compliance with the invasives species rule, you may wind up being ticketed or charged with an unrelated infraction.

The bottom line is anytime you take out your boat to go fishing in Minnesota, you are agreeing to allow state inspectors and enforcement officers to go fishing, too. The difference is you hope to catch fish. They hope to catch you. Even though my father is no longer around to go fishing with me, I know exactly what he would’ve thought about that.

Airdate: May 27, 2011

Photo courtesy of StormyRed_28 via Flickr.

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