Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Will Minnesota Fishing and Boating Stop Being Fun?

Minnesota boaters are now required to stick a new decal on all watercraft from kayaks to sea planes under penalty of law. Currently, no penalty is in effect, but DNR conservation officers can issue a warning for not displaying it. After Aug. 1, 2014, it will be a petty misdemeanor for boaters who fail to display the decal on their watercraft.

The new sticker has nothing to do with boat registration and licensing. Instead it lists the rules we the people must obey in the state’s newly declared war on aquatic invasive species, such as zebra mussels, Asian carp and Eurasian water milfoil. Pull your boat’s drain plug. Pick the weeds off your trailer. Don’t dump your minnows in the lake.

Remember back in Kindergarten when your Mom attached your mittens to a string inside your jacket so you wouldn’t lose them? Now that you are a grown-up, the Minnesota Legislature, not unlike Mom, wants to make sure you remember to pull the drain plug at the boat landing. The decal even includes a second, reminder sticker to put beside your boat winch lest you forget to pull the plug or wear your life preserver.

Gee, thanks Mom.

So far, the DNR has printed 400,000 decals. Minnesotans own over 800,000 watercraft, not counting boats nonresidents bring along when they visit our state. Those nonresidents, also known as tourists, will be required to have the sticker, too. Since many nonresidents are unlikely to know about the decal mandate, an unintended consequence may be many visiting anglers having a negative experience with state conservation officers and boat landing inspectors who issue them warnings for not displaying a free sticker.

Gee, what a great way to welcome tourists to our state.

Then again, even residents may have trouble tracking down a decal. The DNR issued decals to DNR offices, deputy registrar offices, large sporting goods shops (like Cabelas or Gander Mountain), and DNR watercraft inspectors and conservation officers. When I called Buck’s Hardware Hank in Grand Marais, the place where hundreds of Cook County anglers—resident and nonresident–buy fishing licenses, I was told they didn’t have the decals, because they don’t sell boat licenses. Later, Buck’s called back to say they requested decals and would have them on hand.

To be fair, the DNR has handed out up to 1,800 decals per day at busy sport shows. The decals will also be mailed with boat license renewals. In fact, the agency has distributed most of the initial printing. A reprint has been held up, however, because the Legislature may soon change the rules printed on the sticker. I don’t know if that means the existing stickers will then be obsolete.

If all of this sticker stuff strikes you as an example of state government gone amok or as just plain silly, don’t blame the DNR. The agency is not making the rules regarding invasive species, just enforcing them. Simply put, the ideas behind the decal mandate and other aquatic invasive species rules originated in DNR-convened stakeholder meetings a couple of years ago. The stakeholders included anglers, environmentalists, lake association members and more, though more fervent, anti-invasive species viewpoints prevailed. The Legislature used the recommendations from the stakeholders to develop aquatic invasive species regulations.

A few states require decals, which some stakeholders thought was reason enough for Minnesota to the same. The big difference is the other states are out West, where lakes and boaters are few. A much different scenario exists in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Among the stakeholders and some lawmakers, the fervor to do “something” to protect Minnesota waters may have trumped common sense. The threat of ecological havoc caused by zebra mussels and Asian carp is real. It is very likely they will continue to spread into new waters even with preventative measures in place. But those preventive measures have to be practical, pragmatic and enforceable in order to be effective.

I spoke with a northern Minnesota tourism official who is concerned overzealous regulations will create unnecessary confusion among anglers and tourists. My tourism friend strongly believes in protecting our waters, but isn’t sure the current rules are the best way to do so. Consider the new rule requiring anglers to empty the water from their minnow bucket before leaving a lake. You can’t refill the bucket unless you’ve brought water from home. Also, you can’t dump your minnows in the lake or on the ground. So either you return home with a bucket full of dead and soon stinky minnows or you dump them in a trash can at the boat landing.

Now, let’s say you and I decide to paddle and portage across a couple of lakes to fish for walleyes in the Boundary Waters. When we reach the first portage, do we dump the water from the minnows, haul them gasping and wriggling on the bottom of the bucket across the portage and refill it on the other side? What if the two lakes are connected by a stream, as is often the case? Do we still need to empty the water from the bucket? Maybe we should just shoot the rapids with our canoe and avoid portaging the minnows altogether.

No matter what we do, we can’t dump out the minnows, because there are no trash cans in the Boundary Waters. For that matter, there are no trash cans at the vast majority of northern Minnesota public accesses. One can also wonder about the wisdom of replacing the water in your minnow bucket with water from home. In my experience, chlorinated tap water is toxic to minnows.

Heck, maybe we should just forget about fishing and go golfing instead.

My friend also mentioned a small boat rental business that was advised to allow their trailers to dry out for four or five days before being backed into the water on another lake. Since the business provides rentals to several lakes, the owners are now confronted with the real possibility they may need to buy a fleet of trailers—just to continue doing business as usual.

Heck, maybe they should rent golf carts instead.

My friend says questions like there must be answered by state officials so anglers, outfitters, resorters and others in the fishing business know how comply with aquatic invasive species rules. If compliance proves too difficult or impractical, rule changes may be necessary. Otherwise, 2012 may go down as the year fishing and boating stopped being fun in Minnesota.

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