Q & A: Aquatic nuisance species remain relatively scarce in N.D. waters
JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Jessica Howell is aquatic nuisance species coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Howell has a master's degree in fisheries science from South Dakota State University, where she worked on Asian carp, a nasty collection of invasive species that includes the silver carp known for leaping out of the water.
"I've been hit by one of those jumping out of the water, by the way, and it hurts," she said.
Howell was aquatic invasive species coordinator for the state of Kansas before joining Game and Fish in February 2016. She is based in Jamestown, N.D.
Howell talked about the status of ANS in North Dakota and prevention efforts during a recent interview with Herald outdoors editor Brad Dokken. Here is an edited, heavily condensed transcript of their conversation.
What is the status of aquatic nuisance species in North Dakota?
We've got two plant species that we keep track of—curly leaf pondweed and Eurasian watermilfoil. Curly leaf is primarily in the Missouri River System. It is in a few other water bodies around the state like Metigoshe, some in the southeast and one west of the Missouri River as well. Eurasian watermilfoil is only in the Sheyenne River right now in Barnes County.
As you know, we have zebra mussels, as well, and they are just in the Red River. They're not in any of the tributaries upstream.
Can they move upstream on their own?
The answer is pretty much no. They rely on their larvae to disperse. Their larvae float in the water column and so they can get pushed downstream if it's a river, like the Red River. In a lake or reservoir, they can also get moved by wind or wave action, so even in a large reservoir, they can disperse pretty quickly.
Silver carp is the other ANS listed on the website. What's the status of silver carp in North Dakota?
In North Dakota, they're located in the James River up to the Jamestown Reservoir. And then Pipestem River up to the Pipestem Reservoir, as well. They haven't made it across those dams, and they can jump up to 10 feet out of the water. They're the ones you see on TV that people get a little crazy with, but they can't jump over those dams, so unless people move them, they're pretty much stuck there.
The prevalence of zebra mussels remains low in the Red River. Is it a matter of not looking hard enough?
It could be. We aren't doing adult searches anymore, but part of that is it's really hard to sample rivers, especially for adults.
That's why we're doing the larval sampling. That's a little more consistent because we keep track of how much water goes through the net and so we're able to standardize that into how many larvae we found per amount of water sampled. We can use that as an index.
What can people do to mitigate the risks of spreading ANS?
They can follow our regulations, which should do a really good job of preventing the vast majority of things that might get moved. And the regulations are pretty simple.
Remove all vegetation, drain all water—that include livewells, bilges and bait wells—and pull your drain plug. That's part of draining but then leave the drain plug out while you're transporting your boat.
All of this information is on our website. And new for this year, we did add a location for people to report an ANS or anything that they think they found. Even if it turns out to not be an aquatic nuisance species, we'd much rather check out 100 cases that weren't an ANS than miss that one that was.
Do you get quite a few reports of suspected ANS?
We don't get a ton of them and luckily, I think that's because we don't have a lot of movement of ANS in our state. Part of the reason for that is we have a lot of North Dakota residents that just fish or boat in North Dakota. People that are coming for a trip to Devils Lake or Sakakawea or just a special trip to North Dakota to come fishing or waterfowl hunting, I think they're typically the ones that are hearing a lot about aquatic nuisance species from their local DNRs or game and fish agencies, and so they're really taking steps to prevent the spread when they come into North Dakota.
Do you see North Dakota increasing inspections or decontamination units set up at boat ramps?
There are states like Minnesota and now Montana has really stepped up with their mandatory inspections and decontaminations of watercraft, and certainly those seem like a good idea for some locations. The trouble we find in North Dakota is that we've got a lot of points of entry into our state, and we have a lot of water bodies that change from year to year as we get drought or wet years. It's not very feasible for us to have mandatory inspections and to place people at every single boat access area in the state. So that's not a direction we're looking at going right now.
Are people becoming better educated about ANS and the risks they pose?
I think they are. Last year, we did surveys and even though we don't have mandatory inspections, we do have two crews that are doing boater surveys and boat inspections and they're all voluntary. But through those surveys last year, we had a really high percentage of people that had heard about aquatic nuisance species, they knew what they were.
Who is doing those inspections?
We contract through Valley City State University, and so Valley State hired four college students, and we've got two crews of two people each. One is based out of Devils Lake, and one is based out of Valley City. And they are going all over the state.
We're trying to work in a few more Red River sites, so we've got a few trips for the Devils Lake crew over to Grand Forks and Drayton. And we're trying to work in some for the Valley City crew, some of the higher use areas in the southern part of the Red River.
What other steps is the department taking?
This year we've been working with marinas, which does impact boaters primarily. We've also engaged pet stores this year and part of the reason is because things don't just get moved around by boaters or by anglers. It's any water movement, it's any organism movement.
For the most part, it's information gathering and information sharing.
Is the state moving from education to enforcement on ANS?
The drain plug law was new for last year, and so initially, it was more of an educational, "make sure you're doing this because it is the law now." I think they started to transition more into writing tickets for that one in particular, and certainly they have been writing tickets for the other ANS laws like vegetation and draining the water and things. But as an agency as a whole, we're still doing both.
Can ANS be kept out of the state or is it a matter of when, not if?
I think we can effectively manage our natural resources based on the best available science as long as people are following the laws. I'm going to be optimistic and say I think that we can stop new things for coming into North Dakota and the things already in North Dakota from getting into new places. There are things we can't control, like water coming in from the Red River or the Missouri River, but within our state, I think we can work to prevent movement of things in our state.
We're not living in a bubble. We work with regional partners, with other states and Canadian partners, and so we have a handle usually on what's going on in other surrounding areas, and we work with them using the best available science.
We want to protect the species we have in North Dakota, protect the opportunities the anglers have in North Dakota, because we've got some really neat opportunities, and we don't want to see those go away.