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Minnesota boaters will be affected by new North Dakota rules

BISMARCK – An emergency rule implemented last August that requires boaters to pull their drain plugs when entering North Dakota or exiting the Red River will be expanded statewide next month in an effort to prevent the spread of zebra mussels and other aquatic nuisance species.

The Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee approved the rule change Monday as requested by the state Game and Fish Department.

Game and Fish regulations already require boaters to drain water from bilges, livewells, baitwells and motors before leaving a body of water. But boaters are allowed to leave the drain plugs inserted while traveling, whereas Minnesota and South Dakota both require plugs to be out when boats are in transit.

“All we’re saying now is keep that plug out until you get to the next lake,” Fisheries Division Chief Greg Power said.

Violators of the rule will face a $100 administrative fee. If aquatic nuisance species are found in the water being transported, they also could face a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to $1,500 and 30 days in jail.

The expanded rule takes effect April 1, coinciding with the start of Game and Fish licensing year.

“It really, really should be pretty painless,” Power said.

Not all boat owners agree.

In one of the three written comments submitted to Game and Fish, Marc Schulz of Riverdale called it “a radical overreaction to the problem with little impact on the final result.”

Schulz, a 64-year-old retired coal industry worker, said in an interview Monday that he lives just six blocks from Lake Sakakawea and that it’s been six or seven years since he’s had water in the bilges of his three boats. Pulling the interior drain plug is inconvenient because he has to open a sealed cap to reach it in a blind area with sharp corners and screws, he said.

“Fishing the same waters on a constant basis, pulling your plugs and putting them back in, is just kind of nuts,” Schulz said, saying Game and Fish should “concentrate on the border and the Red River, and put your enforcement and efforts there. I mean, that’s where the danger is.”

Power said manufacturers are making it easier to remove drain plugs on newer boats.

Schulz wrote in his letter that hard rules are reasonable where invasive species exist, and boats coming from out of state should have severe restrictions. But he added that migratory birds and transporting 5 gallons of water “are far more likely to relocate invasive species than the bilge of my fishing boat.”

Game and Fish allows live baitfish and other legal live bait to be transported in water in containers of 5 gallons or less, except from the Red River, the only waters in North Dakota where zebra mussels have been found. Power said the department has no plans to expand that ban statewide, predicting there would be “tremendous pushback.”

“As a risk assessment, we don’t think we’re there, that there’s any need for that yet,” he said.

The other two public comments were in favor of expanding the drain plug rule, with one saying it should have been enacted when nuisance species rules were first promulgated. A livewell drainage rule was instituted in 2010 in response to discovery of the first zebra mussel in state waters in the Red River near Wahpeton, which Game and Fish officials believe came from the Pelican Lake chain in Minnesota.

North Dakota has about 80,000 registered watercraft. Power said the department just hired a new nuisance species coordinator and continues to discuss zebra mussels daily.

“If we have 100 percent compliance, we feel like we can stay ahead of that. But that’s going to always be the challenge,” he said.  

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