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In Hubbard Co., stopping lake invaders means not forgetting the beach toys

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Sharon Natzel holds green aquatic plants in her hands.
Sharon Natzel, president of the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations, checks over aquatic plants she scooped up with a rake from Long Lake. All the plants she found were native to Minnesota, including this species, which closely resembles invasive starry stonewort.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

At the public access boat launch on the southern end of Long Lake near Park Rapids, an inspector is usually stationed, ready to check boats for plant fragments or mollusks clinging to the bottom, stuck in the motor or hiding in a live well. 

It’s a step boaters across the state have grown accustomed to, since invasive plants and animals like starry stonewort and zebra mussels have established themselves in Minnesota’s waterways.

But these days, the inspector on Long Lake might go a step further, asking whether anyone has cleaned the boat’s anchor, fishing gear, beach toys — or even water shoes.

That’s part of an effort by lake advocates in north-central Minnesota’s Hubbard County to stop aquatic invasive species from finding alternate modes of transportation into lake waters. They want to make sure people are cleaning not only their boats and trailers, but their water gear and equipment, too.

Except for a few lakes with faucet snails and one — Wolf Lake —  with starry stonewort, most Hubbard County lakes have avoided the most dreaded aquatic invasive species that change lake ecosystems, crowd out native species and hamper recreation. 

Lake advocates attribute that success to early prevention efforts, including launching watercraft inspections a decade ago.

“The lakes are so important to the county, economically and emotionally and personally, that we need to keep these lakes pure,” said Steve Hill, a volunteer and Hinds Lake resident. 

But Hill said many nearby lakes are infested, including popular boating destinations like Cass Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish and Leech Lake.

An orange sign says "Invasive species alert."
Signs indicate the presence of faucet snails, an aquatic invasive species, at a public boat access on Long Lake. So far, most Hubbard County lakes have avoided more serious invaders such as starry stonewort and zebra mussels, which have spread to lakes in nearby counties.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

“We’re surrounded by counties with [aquatic invasives],” he said.

Much of the focus of aquatic invasive species prevention statewide has been on inspecting boats and trailers at public ramps because moving boats from one lake to another is considered one of the likeliest methods of transporting invasives.

But in Hubbard County, most people already are following the state law that requires them to clean, drain and dry their boats, said Sharon Natzel, president of the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations. 

About eight years ago, the county’s inspectors reported that about 7 percent of watercraft arrived at public access points with drain plugs in, meaning water hadn’t been properly drained out of the boats. 

Over time, with education, that number has dropped to less than 1 percent, Natzel said.

“So, we thought, ‘well, what else can we do?’” she said.

Changing behavior

Lake advocates like Natzel are trying to figure out other ways invasive species might be spreading, including by hitching rides on gear and equipment. 

They’ve also shifted from targeting their message only to boaters at public access points to communicating with people who live on the lakes, too. 

Those lakeshore residents might put their boat in the lake once in the spring and take it out in the fall, Natzel said, but that might not be true of their guests.

"They don't think about the fact that maybe their brother and sister come from another area and bring their stuff and they put their kayaks in, or their water toys, or bring their water shoes,” she said. “They can bring it in with mud or plants that are attached. Or if they didn't drain it properly, it could have water in it."

Sharon Natzel checks a tube while kneeling on a dock beside the lake.
Sharon Natzel, president of the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations, checks a tube designed to monitor for zebra mussels near the public boat access on Long Lake.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Measuring risk

It’s not yet clear how likely it is that a pair of hip waders or a giant inflatable unicorn might spread zebra mussels, starry stonewort or Eurasian milfoil.

Most studies — like most communications — have focused on how boats are moving invasive species, said Nick Phelps, director of the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center.

"What people haven't really looked at yet, though, are the other types of equipment, like the rafts and beach toys and all the other things that could be moved around by people,” he said.

The level of risk depends on the item, Phelps said. A beach bucket or a foam noodle doesn't hold a lot of water, and it's probably not in a lake long enough for anything to attach to it. 

But a swimming raft or a boat lift parked in a lake with zebra mussels is likely to have some critters attached, he said. Minnesota law requires docks and boat lifts to be out of the water for at least 21 days before they are moved to another lake or river.

“If somebody moves one of those pieces of equipment from lake to lake, there's a decent chance that it's going to be able to spread,” Phelps said. 

Researchers at the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center are studying how different types of fishing line, anchors and other equipment might spread spiny water flea, an invasive zooplankton. The information they collect will be shared with anglers and boaters to help reduce the risk, Phelps said.

‘Just like sneezing’

The Hubbard County effort borrows from a theory that community-based social marketing can be used to change people’s behavior, said Tina Wolbers, an aquatic invasive species prevention specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR wants to use social marketing to shift from simply providing information — for instance, reminding boaters to clean, drain and dry their boats between lake visits — to identifying barriers that are stopping people from complying with invasive species laws, such as a lack of cleaning equipment, or a disability that prevents someone from bending over to check the bottom of a boat.

The DNR plans to award grants next year to local organizations across Minnesota to do social marketing work related to preventing aquatic invasives, Wolbers said.

“We just want to make it easy for everyone to be clean when they go into the lake, and clean when they leave,” she said.

Hubbard County's lake advocates want people to regard anything they put in a lake or river as a potential risk.

They're spreading the word by talking to their neighbors one on one — and by handing out colorful fliers at events that urge people to clean and drain their gear and equipment before moving someplace else. 

They want lake users to treat every lake like it's infested, and not move vegetation, water or mud from one lake to another.

If they're successful, Natzel hopes they might be able to keep Hubbard County free from the invaders that are rapidly changing so many other Minnesota lakes.

"It's just like sneezing. We all had to learn not to sneeze into our hand. You sneeze in your elbow,” she said. “So, that's what we're doing. Don't transport anything."