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Boaters launch their vessel after clearing the aquatic invasive species inspection at Bloedel Donovan Park. // Photo by Kaleigh Carroll

By Kaleigh Carroll

As select outdoor recreation reopened in Washington on May 5, the city of Bellingham announced it would open some of its aquatic invasive species boat inspection stations.

The inspection station at Bloedel Donovan Park was the first to reopen on May 5 while the Lake Samish and Sudden Valley stations reopened on May 16. The South Bay inspection station is anticipated to reopen later in May, according to Teagan Ward, the aquatic invasive species coordinator for the city of Bellingham.

Normally, all inspection stations open in mid-April, but Gov. Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order delayed this year’s opening.

As a result, inspection staff has had less hands-on training prior to the start of the season and many boaters have already launched their vessels without going through the inspection process.

In the weeks before May 5, Ward said her staff observed through camera footage that some boaters had launched their uninspected vessels into Lake Samish and Lake Whatcom. While uninspected vessels entering Bellingham’s waters are not ideal, staff reported that most of the boats appeared to be local or belong to residents of the lakes.

“Luckily, this isn’t the time of year that many invasive species are transported because the water is still warming up, but we’re still concerned about boats that are going from one lake to another that might be transporting standing water that could harbor microscopic life stages of different species,” Ward said.

Asian clams, Eurasian watermilfoil and the New Zealand mudsnail are the three major aquatic invasive species already in Bellingham that the inspection program is concerned about. 

Asian clams were first spotted in Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden in 2011 and in August 2019 they were confirmed to have spread to Lake Samish. Like many invasive species, the clams outcompete native species for food and have the ability to increase algal blooms in lakes.

Eurasian watermilfoil has existed in Lake Whatcom since the 1970s, and in 2013 it had spread to Lake Terrell. The invasive aquatic plant can reproduce quickly and block out sunlight from reaching native plants, which ultimately kills them.

New Zealand mudsnails were first identified in Lake Padden in September 2018 and have spread rapidly since then. The snail’s ability to reproduce rapidly allows it to consume a disproportionate amount of resources which ultimately hurts native species according to the Whatcom Boat Inspections 2019 annual report.

“People think we can control them or that invasives are an inevitable part of the ecosystem. But that simply isn’t true,” said Clare Fogelsong, a policy manager in the public works department for the city of Bellingham.

Whatcom Boat Inspections, the program that operates the aquatic invasive species inspection stations, began in 2012 as a voluntary process for boaters and became mandatory in 2013.

The program is focused on preventing the spread and introduction of aquatic invasive species in Bellingham’s bodies of water as well as educating boaters about the risks these species pose.

Since its inception, the program has inspected over 65,000 boats with 12,923 of those inspections happening in 2019 alone, according to the Whatcom Boat Inspections 2019 annual report.

While the boat inspection staff can’t prevent boaters from launching without having their vessel inspected, local regulations state there is up to a $1,000 fine if crafts in Lake Whatcom or Samish are not permitted and inspected.

Stopping the further spread of invasive species already in Bellingham is only one part of the boat inspection program’s goal.

“Our primary mission is preventing those Zebra and Quagga mussels from being introduced into our lakes because of the serious impacts they could cause to our drinking water infrastructure, ecosystem and property values,” Ward said.

No Zebra or Quagga Mussel infestations have been identified within Washington state and Ward would like to keep it that way.

The mussels, which are often fingernail-sized, can create millions of offspring in a single spawning season and survive up to 30 days out of the water.

They tend to cluster on submerged surfaces and cause expensive damage to water filtration infrastructure and boat hulls.

“When it comes to invasive species, the first line of attack should always be prevention,” said Ray Newman, a professor of fisheries at the University of Minnesota.

Newman noted that eradication of invasive species is usually only feasible and safe if the species is newly established and concentrated in one area. Otherwise, cities risk spending funds on treatments that can harm native species while not completely removing the invasive species.

Whatcom Boat Inspections also pairs its prevention tactics with education.

“Our goal is to educate every boater who comes through, so they know how to take steps to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species and to inspect their own watercraft even if inspectors are not present,” Ward said.

The program offers a free aquatic invasive species awareness course that boaters can take to receive a discount on their permit. Staff members at the inspection stations also provide education to boaters on-site.

Through their educational efforts, the inspection program hopes to dispel some of the common misconceptions about aquatic invasive species.

Jeff Davis, the manager for Lakewood, said some people who launch at Lakewood assume that if they can’t see any invasive species on their craft that they aren’t spreading them.

“People have to realize that invasives can exist in the lake water itself, and just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” Davis said.

Davis noted that most people are happy to comply with the inspection process once its importance has been explained.

“Most people who are involved with boating have a healthy respect for the environment and want to see it protected,” Davis said.

Ward has seen a similar attitude reflected in the boaters that have visited the inspection stations.

“The wait times have been longer than anticipated as we train our new staff but most people have been very patient and seem to appreciate that we are taking the safety of our staff and our boaters seriously,” Ward said.

Some of the COVID-19 precautions taken by the inspection program include providing personal protective equipment for each staff member, only inspecting one boat at a time, assigning each staff member one task to minimize tool sharing and practicing social distancing.

Inspection times vary widely depending on the complexity and past travels of each vessel Ward said. If a boat has recently visited bodies of water where invasive species were present, then it will be designated for a more thorough inspection.

Fogelsong anticipated that these safety measures will be in place till the end of the 2020 boating season.

Ward’s advice for boaters this coming season was simple, be prepared and be patient.

“For this season, being patient is really important for folks coming to the lake. We’re trying to keep our staff as well as the public safe,” Ward said.

She encouraged boaters to buy their permits online beforehand and come to the inspection stations with their boats cleaned, drained and dried to expedite the process.For updates and more information on the aquatic invasive species inspection stations, visit the Whatcom Boat Inspection program’s website

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