North Dakota lawmakers eyeing increased fees to fight aquatic invaders
BISMARCK — About 15 years ago, few people in North Dakota were aware of “aquatic nuisance species,” the water-based invaders that can hamper recreational opportunities and clog water systems.
But amid increased concerns about their proliferation, “ignorance is no excuse anymore,” said Greg Power, the fisheries division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
State lawmakers are eyeing a proposal to raise fees for fishing licenses and other related permits to provide the department with a dedicated funding source for programs to curb the spread of unwelcome pests.
Power said the agency has reshuffled about $500,000 in existing funds per biennium for its aquatic nuisance species efforts, and the new money would allow for increased education, inspections, enforcement and monitoring. Lawmakers hope to raise about $2 million per biennium, according to Mandan Republican Rep. Todd Porter, chairman of the House committee that's considering the bill.
"This funding would be a start to get more control over the potential for aquatic nuisance species that travel into our state," said Devils Lake Republican Sen. Dave Oehlke, the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 2293.
Only about a dozen of the 440 waterways managed by the Game and Fish Department have aquatic nuisance species in them, Power said. A new ANS population hasn't been discovered in North Dakota for a few years, according to the department.
But zebra mussels, which Power described as the “poster child” for the aquatic nuisance problem, have found their way into the Red River on the eastern side of the state in recent years. The pests can clog water intakes and damage a waterway's food chain, affecting fishing opportunities.
Silver carp, Eurasian watermilfoil and curlyleaf pondweed have infested waters farther west, according to the Game and Fish Department.
Though the problem hasn't reached drastic levels, state officials and angler groups said the bill represents a proactive measure against the spread aquatic invaders from elsewhere. About 7 percent of Minnesota's 11,000-plus lakes are on an infested water list, according to that state's Department of Natural Resources.
"We're seeing a lot more nonresidents come in from places that do have infested waters and it's a little nerve-wracking," said Jessica Howell, the aquatic nuisance species coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Proponents also said the bill could help protect a major economic driver. Excluding license purchases, anglers spent nearly $790 million in North Dakota during the 2017-18 season, according to a report commissioned by the Game and Fish Department.
House lawmakers are eyeing a $3 surcharge for resident fishing licenses, with exemptions for senior and disabled anglers, and a $6 surcharge for nonresident fishing and waterfowl hunting licenses. They are also considering a $15 "ANS fee" for out-of-state boaters and $5 for in-state boat licenses.
The North Dakota Sportfishing Congress, an umbrella group for fishing clubs in the state, backs the bill, said Chad Engels, a representative for the organization. He said the increased fees won't present much of a burden.
"We all recognize ... that we need to do more active aquatic nuisance species prevention," Engels said. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."