Policy brief aims to improve boater education and prevent spread of aquatic invaders

Michigan boaters want to protect our waters from invaders. New recommendations may help in teaching them how.

Boaters and anglers know that aquatic invaders take a huge toll on the Great Lakes and other Michigan waterways. Invasive plants clog canals and zebra mussel shells litter sandy beaches in many inland waters. Declines in Great Lakes fish have been linked to invaders like sea lamprey and quagga mussel. Power plants and other water users now must treat intake pipes to keep them invasive-free, which affects electricity rates. All told, the cost of invaders in the Great Lakes region has been estimated at $5.7 billion per year.

Recreational boating is often responsible for spreading these “aquatic hitchhikers” once they gain a foothold in the region. Even a small fragment of a leaf or a few drops of plankton-rich water can be enough to start a new population of invaders.

Outreach programs with names like Stop Aquatic HitchhikersTM and Be a Hero, Transport Zero aim to educate boaters and other water users. National campaigns have focused on recommendations to “Clean, Drain, and Dry” all equipment before moving to another body of water. In addition to outreach efforts, many states have regulations that require boaters to take certain steps to prevent invasions.

In Michigan, for example, boaters may not launch a boat or trailer that “has an aquatic plant attached.”  This effectively requires boaters to clean off plants before launching, but it does not require cleaning of mud or mussels that may pose a risk to waters.

Discrepancies between legal requirements and general recommendations were the impetus for a recent project funded by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Through a Michigan Applied Public Policy Research (MAPPR) grant, the institute funded an interdisciplinary team representing MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability, Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan State University Extension, and Chonnam National University. The project team recently published a policy brief outlining potential improvements to public outreach and education programs related to the spread of AIS.

After conducting a survey that compared three outreach messages, the project team determined that outreach materials should include specific details regarding steps needed to prevent AIS. More generalized outreach messages were not considered as informative as detailed messages, and the detailed message also had the advantage of increasing boaters’ belief that they could prevent the spread of AIS and make a difference.

Specific recommendations for more effective boater education center on the use of a detailed outreach message in concert with the widely-recognized Stop Aquatic HitchhikersTM logo and more engaging visual materials. This standardized and detailed message should be provided to all boaters via access site signage, boater handbooks, and boat registration materials if possible.

Educational efforts would also be more effective if regulations were simplified to allow for more straightforward messaging. For example, expanding the existing requirement to remove plants to removal of mussels, mud, and other debris would simplify messaging that boaters are required to “Clean” their boats before launching under Michigan law.

Survey results found that Michigan boaters are very much inclined to follow AIS laws, but many do not know which actions are required. In fact, 17.9% of boaters did not realize that removal of plants is required and 21.2% did not know that draining water from livewells and bilges is required. Boaters who did know that these actions are required by law in Michigan were much more likely to take these actions on a regular basis.

In Michigan, no citations have been issued for violating these AIS prevention laws. This is a stark contrast to Minnesota, where 405 citations were issued for similar violations in a single year. While immediate increase in citations is not necessarily desirable due to the confusion that exists, law enforcement officers can (and already do) serve an important role in educating the public, as well.

Over the past ten years, boaters have taken big steps toward protecting their waters from invaders. For example, Michigan boaters are now four times as likely to wash their boats (at least occasionally) than they were in 2004. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement — particularly when it comes to compliance with actions that are now required by law.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

Did you find this article useful?