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Boating citations could rise in fight against invasive species

Boaters, beware. Citations from the South Dakota's conservation officers will rise this summer as officials fight the spread of aquatic invasive species. Last year, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department updated the state's aquatic inva...

Boaters, beware.

Citations from the South Dakota's conservation officers will rise this summer as officials fight the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Last year, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department updated the state's aquatic invasive species regulations, including one that requires boat plugs to be open when a boat is not on the water. The goal is to fight the spread of invasive species, such as zebra mussels, according to Mike Smith, GF&P senior wildlife biologist and aquatic invasive species coordinator.

Smith said conservation officers only issued warnings last year when boaters were caught violating the new regulations, but they may not be as lenient this summer.

"If people do comply with regulations, it will go a very long ways toward slowing the spread," Smith said.

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The problem is not everyone complies. Smith said 90 percent of boaters were aware of the regulation, but only 60 percent complied. He partially credited the high awareness rate to the department's aquatic invasive species website, sdleastwanted.com.

The site was updated and relaunched last April and features regulations, species information and boat wash locations, and Smith said it has received much attention.

"That's been a really big success for us," Smith said. "People really went to those pages a lot to make sure they were transporting their bait right and taking their fish to the fish cleaning station correctly."

Andy Alban, law enforcement administrator for GF&P, said about 50 warnings were issued in 2015 for violations of aquatic invasive species regulations, but in busy situations, conservation officers didn't always write an official warning. About 80 percent of warnings reported were for boat plug violations.

According to the boat plug regulation, boaters and anglers may keep fish or bait in a livewell while transporting the boat to an immediately adjacent cleaning station. If there is no cleaning station next to the water, plugs in the livewell must be pulled.

"We're going to see that one a majority of the time. At least that's what in recent history it has shown," Alban said.

Alban said only one citation was given in 2015 - someone was found in possession of rusty crayfish, a non-native invasive species - but he has instructed conservation officers to begin issuing citations when boat plugs have not been pulled.

"We really tried to do an educational effort last year," Alban said. "I believe there will be more citations issued this year."

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Fighting the spread

Although the S.D. Least Wanted site has helped raise the awareness of aquatic invasive species regulations, Smith said it is difficult to know if there has been any impact yet on the spread of zebra mussels.

"I think, right now, we have to consider zebra mussels our top priority, because we now have them in Lewis and Clark Lake," Smith said.

Lewis and Clark is frequented for recreational boating, Smith said, so it's possible some boaters could unknowingly carry zebra mussels - which are known to be harmful toward ecosystems - to nearby lakes, like Lake Francis Case.

Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they eat plankton, the bottom level of the food web, which could ultimately affect other populations. Asian carp do the same, but there isn't enough research to confirm that filter feeders have affected lake ecosystems.

A bigger concern, Smith said, are zebra mussels' tendency to clog irrigation and water intake pipes, which could raise water prices for South Dakotans if utility companies have to regularly clean or replace water infrastructure.

To combat the mussels' and other invasive species' spread, GF&P created an aquatic invasive species strategic management plan, expected to take effect in June.

The document will guide department activities to fulfill objectives outlined in a statewide management plan created in 2008. The GF&P plan is expected to be in place until at least 2020.

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As part of the initiative, GF&P will be hiring interns to complete two- to four-minute boat inspections this summer, as permissible by a regulation updated last year.

If a mussel is found, the boat's exterior will be powerwashed with 140-degree water, and the interior and engine will be rinsed, Smith said. Decontamination is expected to last 20 to 30 minutes.

Boats are more likely to be inspected if there is water in the boat or if it was recently taken to a high-risk body of water, like the Great Lakes.

Furthermore, people found in possession of an invasive species could be charged with a class 2 misdemeanor, but Smith said the department is unlikely to charge someone who did not know a mussel was attached to his or her vessel, and a conservation officer would have to be on scene to write the citation.

"We're going to help them remove that from their boat and show them how to clean their boat and things like that, but it's possible. These are regulations, so a citation is always possible," Smith said.

Other regulations forbid people from possessing, selling or transporting aquatic invasive species and transporting fish or bait in water from a lake, river or stream except en route to an immediately adjacent fish-cleaning station.

The department's first set of aquatic invasive species regulations went into effect in 2012. Smith said GF&P reviews the regulations annually, and they could be updated again in August.

Seventeen aquatic invasive species have been found in South Dakota lakes, including six fish species: bighead carp and silver carp - both in the asian carp family - grass carp and European rudd.

Invasive plant species found include brittle nalad, curly pondweed, didymo, Eurasian watermilfoil, purple loosestrife and flowering rush. Invertebrate species found are rusty crayfish, zebra mussel, quagga mussel, asian clam and red-rimmed melania.

Only curly pondweed has been found in Lake Mitchell, but European rudd has been found in Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case. Lake Sharpe was also discovered to be infested with curly pondweed, Eurasian watermilfoil and purple loosestrife.

Bighead carp, silver carp and grass carp can be found in the James River. Common carp and western mosquitofish can be found statewide.

Control, regulation, prevention

GF&P's plan focuses on three issues: controlling current populations, regulating their spread and preventing new species from entering the state.

"Prevention is the most cost‐effective and efficient part of a plan to preserve the aquatic resources of South Dakota. If an AIS can be prevented from entering South Dakota, the potential for an infestation is non‐existent," the plan says.

Alban also stressed the importance of prevention, but he said it was the discovery of zebra mussels in South Dakota that led the department to revamp the regulations last year.

"Prevention is always important ... but then, when you have an infestation like down at Lewis and Clark, that causes us to step things up a little bit," Alban said.

GF&P will also seek funding sources from state and federal grants and work to educate aquatic-resource users.

The department is seeking comments from the public regarding its management plan, which can be found at sdleastwanted.com/docs/management-plan.pdf. Smith said he has received few comments so far.

Smith said the plan is designed to slow the spread of invasive species, as there is no feasible way to exterminate the species already in place, but he still expects to see zebra mussels spread to other lakes in southeast South Dakota in the next five to 10 years.

But they may not get further than that. Smith said South Dakota lakes provide differing environments. In Lake Francis Case, for instance, the water level is lowered each year, so mussels may freeze in the winter.

Without South Dakota's or other states' regulations, Smith said mussels and other species could flood the Missouri River and other lakes within a few years.

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