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Guest editorial: Zeroing in on zebra mussels

Detroit Lakes Tribune

Cheers to the Becker County Board for taking the lead in the effort to keep aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels out of Becker County lakes.

The always-frugal board took the unusual step of authorizing $20,000 in non-budgeted money to fund a six-month contract creating the new position of AIS coordinator.

It's a good first step, and the board -- under the leadership of chairman Larry Knutson -- deserves credit for being willing to take concrete action against a problem that can seem overwhelming.

Others in the community also deserve recognition for their key roles in the fight against invasive aquatic species ---- notably Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations leaders Terry Kalil and Dick Hecock and Pelican River Watershed District Administrator Tera Guetter, as well as a handful of others.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure -- especially when there is no cure. And that's the case with zebra mussels. Once a lake is infested, there's no way to get rid of them -- the ecosystem of that lake is changed forever.

Containing zebra mussels isn't easy: They are born as tiny free-floating larvae that are most easily detected by touch - they make a boat hull feel like sandpaper.

They float along with the current, attaching themselves to aquatic plants, boats, docks, lifts, water intake pipes -- you get the idea.

Much more action is going to be needed -- by the county as well as the city of Detroit Lakes, among others -- to wage an effective campaign to preserve Becker County lakes.

If it's successful, it will pay off handsomely by preserving the county's reputation as a popular place for summer visitors, anglers and lake home owners.

The battle is difficult because it means changing the mindset and habits of a generation of lake lovers who are used to hopping easily from lake to lake with their boats.

Now people have to understand that hopping from lake to lake can mean transporting zebra mussels at a stage when they're too tiny to see.

It can take a week or more to dry out a boat enough to kill the attached zebra mussel larvae, and anglers have to make other adjustments too -- like bringing home their fish in an ice chest rather than a live well.

To prevent the spread of zebra mussels, everything, including the boat itself, must be drained -- and even the weeds hanging from the motor can be dangerous: zebra mussels attach themselves to aquatic plants too.

Zebra mussels breed like, well, zebra mussels -- an adult female produces 30,000 to 1 million eggs per year, and about 2 percent survive.

Each one filters up to a quart of water a day as they devour tiny animals and algae in a lake. That can mean the entire volume of an infested lake is filtered every day.

That's good news for bottom feeders and small-mouth bass, but bad news for most species of game fish.

And it's very bad news for humans, who cut their feet and hands while swimming in once-pristine lakes, and see pipes, docks and lifts coated in zebra mussels.

The good news is the DNR has finally gotten serious about the problem.

The state agency will purchase 20 high-pressure, hot water decontamination units that will be operated at zebra mussel infested waters, high-use destination lakes and at DNR enforcement check points. There are now just three such units in the state.

The DNR will also hire 150 new watercraft inspectors and three new invasive species specialists to be deployed around the state.

It's going to be a busy summer.