Lake protectors want state to impose tougher restrictions on invasive species
By Gwendolyn Craig
Adirondack lake advocates want stronger state protections against aquatic invaders after boats carrying damaging species delivered some close calls in 2020.
Some even question whether New York’s regulators are doing enough to enforce laws already on the books.
Contractors and lake associations, who run boat inspection stations, say most boaters are happy to get their vessels checked, cleaned, drained and dried to prevent species transport. After all, the intention of the law, and the voluntary program supporting it, is to keep lakes and ponds clear of invasive plants and creatures that could ruin the natural ecosystem and mar activities such as boating and swimming.
Still, hundreds of boaters refuse inspections and cleanings, and stewards lack authority to force them.
Aquatic invaders can range from tiny mollusks to fish to weeds. Eurasian watermilfoil has grown into an underwater lawn in parts of Lake George and Schroon Lake, choking out native species and making it difficult to boat and swim. Removing it has become a decades-long effort costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lake groups know they can never fully eradicate it.
Schroon Lake in Warren County is about 9 miles long with two public boat launches. At the southern launch in the Town of Horicon last summer, boat stewards encountered a watercraft covered in zebra mussels.
The invasive species is about the size of a fingernail, but it proliferates and can cause significant damage. Mussels plaster themselves on things like water intake pipes and rocks. Schroon Lake, as far as stewards know, has not had any zebra mussels in its waters. But this watercraft coming from Saratoga Lake was covered with the sharp shells.
Everett McNeill, of the East Shore Schroon Lake Association, said it took operators of the decontamination station about a half hour to get the vessel clean. Stewards reported back to the lake association that the owner was impatient and “obnoxious.”
Though ultimately able to clean the boat before launch, the lake association contacted the state Department of Environmental Conservation about what to do if a boater failed to comply. McNeill said they were informed the boater would get a warning.
That’s how the 2016 law on aquatic invasive species is written. The first offense gets a warning. The second brings a fine of up to $150. Try to launch with invasive species all over your boat a third or fourth time? The fines can go up to $250 and $1,000, respectively.
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But for groups like the East Shore Schroon Lake Association and Schroon Lake Association, who chip in thousands of dollars annually to manage the invasive species that the lake already holds, a warning is not enough.
Education may have sufficed in years past, but now “a slap on the hand doesn’t do it,” McNeill said. “We don’t want this stuff in our lake.”
McNeill and his colleagues sent a letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos after the zebra mussel incident, asking him to consider increased penalties. The Adirondack Council, an environmental nonprofit, is also continuing its call for a parkwide, mandatory boat inspection program.
The state Legislature has extended the invasive species law year to year. It’s set to expire on June 1, unless it is renewed.
But is the law working and keeping waters across the state clear of invasive species?
Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute operates more than 60 boat inspection stations across the park. Director Dan Kelting has looked at the inspection data from before and after the 2016 law passed.
One might expect that after a law passes, people’s behavior would change and stewards would see fewer dirty boats at inspection stations, Kelting said. To his thinking, that hasn’t happened.
“I don’t believe there’s necessarily a lot of awareness of the law,” he said, “and the consequences of not following it.”
AWI stewards performed more than 125,000 boat inspections last year, including vessels going into the water and coming out. About 350 boats had aquatic invasive species on them. Those were successfully intercepted through the boat-washing program.
But, Kelting said, about 300 boaters refused an inspection. Some offered good reasons, such as it being their first time out for the year. About 200 gave no excuse, though.
“It’s a rare occurrence,” Kelting said, but it only takes one infested boat to cause a problem.
While AWI does the majority of boat inspections in the park, some lake associations, like those on Schroon Lake, have paid for their own decontamination stations and staffs.
None of the boat stewards, from AWI or elsewhere, can enforce the law. All they can do when a boater refuses inspection is remind them of the law and call DEC.
“We can’t prevent them from launching,” Kelting said.
He could not recall many actual enforcement actions by DEC.
It is not clear that DEC has ticketed anyone under the law. The Adirondack Explorer filed a Freedom of Information Law request for records of any “warnings, violations, fines and tickets” issued by rangers or ecological conservation officers to boaters in the park from 2010 to 2020. The request also sought any communications about boaters who failed to have their crafts inspected. A DEC records official in December responded to say the department’s search had found no such records.
A DEC spokesperson said the agency’s Division of Law Enforcement remains “committed to providing the necessary education and, when necessary, enforcement of violations to ensure our waters are protected.”
Meg Modley Gilbertson, aquatic invasive species management coordinator with the Lake Champlain Basin Program, said Vermont officials don’t often write tickets either. In fact, the program has provided a $10,000 grant to the state’s game wardens to get them to enforce the regulations and write warnings and tickets.
As in New York, Modley Gilbertson said, most Vermonters comply with boat checks. A few don’t take it seriously.
“Without a law or a regulation, you don’t have a lot to stand on,” Modley Gilbertson said, “but if the law or regulation is not enforced, it’s very challenging.”
Lake Champlain has some 50 invasive species. In 2018, fishhook waterflea was added to the list. The fishhook waterflea is around 1 centimeter long. Its main body is insect-like, and attached is an extended tail with barbs on the end—hence the name fishhook. The tiny zooplankton is mighty in numbers. Originally from Eurasia but transported to North America in ships’ ballast, it preys on native zooplankton—important in the natural food chain—and also mucks up anglers’ lines.
Mark Granger, president of the Schroon Lake Association, and McNeill worry about their lake because it is near Lake Champlain and some anglers fish both. But so far Schroon Lake only has two invasive species—Eurasian watermilfoil and curly leaf pondweed—that the associations know about.
Granger supports higher fines.
“You need a law with structure and with penalties to deal with people that are not going to do anything voluntarily,” Granger said. “It can be 5% of the population that are 90% of the problem.”
John Sheehan, communications director at the Adirondack Council, said the group wants to see the Legislature renew it and add mandatory boat inspections. So far, he said, DEC has stood in the way.
“They lobbied against it last year,” Sheehan said. “We were very disappointed they did that.”
A spokesperson for DEC said the state “is committed to preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species and is investing significant resources, both through funding and in increasing public awareness for boaters and other public users of the state’s waters about the importance of Clean-Drain-Dry.”
The Eastern New York Marine Trades Association prefers that the state not overregulate, Executive Director Joel Holden said. He was unsure whether the nonprofit boating industry group has an official position on the current law.
Erin Vennie-Vollrath, of the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, said staff members have surveyed more than 400 lakes, and of those about 75% are free of aquatic invasive species.
During a webinar, Vennie-Vollrath said the vast majority of lakes that had invasive plants had only one or two. The fear is that boaters will transport invaders from afflicted areas in the Finger Lakes and Capital Region.
The Adirondack Park does have two mandatory inspection programs already in play in Warren County, at Loon Lake and Lake George.
The program on Lake George kept what some refer to as the “Godzilla” of invasive plants out of the water this summer—hydrilla.
There are six inspection stations around Lake George, and all boats are required to get a look from stewards and get decontaminated if carrying aquatic hitchhikers.
During the 2020 boating season, stewards conducted more than 37,000 inspections on Lake George and intercepted 178 boats carrying invasive species.
Hydrilla was among them. Hydrilla is an invasive plant from Asia that looks a little like the tiny leaves and stringy branches of thyme. It’s difficult to control because fragments can grow roots and make new plants. They can form dense mats on the surface, and deplete oxygen that fish need.
So far, hydrilla has not made it into any Adirondack Park water bodies. It has infested Finger Lakes and downstate waters.
The Lake George Park Commission, which oversees the Lake George watershed, had the support of the nine municipalities around the lake for a mandatory program. Sheehan recalled resistance from state officials.
“That’s where the resistance (to a parkwide mandate) is coming from now,” Sheehan added.
Lake George has an enforcement arm with its marine patrol. Lt. Joe Johns said a boat that shows up at an inspection station with invasive species on it technically could be ticketed.
“We generally do not do that if the owner is compliant with the wash procedure and the vessel is cleaned prior to launching,” Johns added.
If someone refuses an inspection on Lake George, however, marine patrol is notified and the boater gets ticketed. Johns said some boats have proved too infested for quick decontamination. Those are sent to marinas “for a commercial cleaning at the owners’ expense prior to being allowed to launch.”
Since 2015, Johns said, his staff has issued 10 tickets, with fines ranging from $175 to $300.
Managing the invasive species already in the lake comes at an astronomical cost compared to the fines. David Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission, said $500,000 went to removing Eurasian watermilfoil in 2020—the most ever spent in one year for the project. Divers removed 175,000 pounds of the invasive plant from the lake, up from 83,000 in 2019. And there are still bays saturated with the weed.
How would the state take a mandatory program like Lake George’s and scale it to the entire 6 million-acre Adirondack Park?
Some have argued it’s not practical, considering the thousands of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks and the manpower such a program would need.
Sheehan doesn’t imagine a mandatory inspection at every lake in the park, though. The Adirondack Council proposes using the same boat steward structure already in place.
“Until we have a rule in place that says you can’t launch a boat without getting it inspected and decontaminated first, it’s going to be very difficult to carry out the enforcement necessary to make this law work,” Sheehan said. “Once that comprehensive requirement is in place, you really only need to do spot checks, similar to the ones in place for no transport of firewood” to prevent the spread of non-native insects.
Kelting, from the Paul Smith’s College program, would like to see the DEC do a spot-check weekend, like officers do with cars transporting untreated firewood.
“High-profile, public events increase awareness and hopefully change behavior,” he said.
The Adirondack Council wants to see more boaters use the relatively new boat decontamination station near Exit 18 at the Adirondack Welcome Center on the Northway. Kelting said that station is getting more traction, with decontaminations jumping from about 590 in 2019 to about 850 in 2020.