During last fall's only local police sweep of motorists violating Oregon's mandatory boat inspections for invasive species, more than two dozen boaters offered a bevy of excuses for why they blew past inspectors on Interstate 5 at the Ashland port of entry.
"The most common excuses were, 'I didn't think it applied to me,' 'I didn't remember that I had a canoe on the top of my truck' and 'I thought it only applied to people from California,' " says Rick Boatner, who runs the inspection program. "And one of those California ones was actually a boater from Texas. Honestly, I can't make this up."
Officers just rolled their eyes and issued warnings during that September sweep. But now even clever excuses could get violators $142 tickets.
"It's up to the discretion of the officer," Boatner says. "But we'll encourage him to write tickets."
Oregon this week opened its boat-inspection season, which comes with the spectre of fines instead of the warnings that have been handed out the past two years. The effort is designed to intercept boats polluted with invasive species, such as mussels or weeds, before they can infect waters here.
And it didn't take long for the new inspection season to pay off in spades.
Crews at the Ashland site on Tuesday discovered a boat infected with quagga mussels picked up while the boat was in Arizona's Lake Havasu. That boat was scheduled to be decontaminated Monday in Portland before it gets launched.
A boat inspected Wednesday on Interstate 84 in La Grande contained zebra mussels from Saginaw Bay, Michigan.
Both of those boat owners willingly stopped for boat inspections, Boatner says.
Last year's spring-to-fall inspection season netted six boats with quagga or zebra mussels, so finding two in the first week is alarming, Boatner says.
"I'm glad we found them," Boatner says. "It shows the program works."
But not everyone is following the protocol.
Northbound boat-haulers between Ashland's two I-5 exits will pass four signs warning when the mandatory inspection site is open at the port of entry, but invasive species technician Eric Ressel still sees regular violations.
"We want to make it as obvious as possible, but we still see 15 to 20 boats cruise past us every day," Ressel says.
On Friday, Ressel simply made a note of every boat that illegally cruised by. On some future occasions, he will be joined at the station by an Oregon State Police trooper who will stop violators and maybe write them tickets.
Wally Pasnik of Central Point and Ed Seto of Medford saw the signs Friday afternoon and were unsure at first whether the mandatory aspect applied to them.
"We were figuring it was just boats from out of state," Seto says.
While the men groused for a few minutes about their day's poor fishing trip to Howard Prairie, Ressel gave Pasnik's boat a good once-over and deemed it clean.
The Oregon Legislature in 2009 created $5 invasive species boat permits to fund a coordinated effort to ensure that environmental wrecking balls like zebra and quagga mussels don't enter Oregon on boats coming from infected waters.
Some invasive species would thrive in local waters because they would be safe from predators or diseases seen in their native habitats, allowing them to reproduce exponentially and out-compete native fish for food and space.
Zebra and quagga mussels do all that and more. The mussels filter zooplankton, altering ecosystems much the way tui chubs did in Diamond Lake last decade. They also can ruin boat engines, jam steering equipment, clog water pipes and cloak a lake bed.
Oregon's three-year-old "Clean Launch Law" makes it illegal to launch any boat with any aquatic species clinging to the exterior, including native weeds.
But the inspections were just voluntary at first, and only 1 in 4 boat owners took heed.
Last year, the Legislature made the requirements mandatory for all boats — from yachts to canoes. Gov. John Kitzhaber signed it in August, just before the end of the summer boating season. That makes this year the first full season of mandatory inspections.
At the roadside inspection sites, clean trailers will be marked. Boats or trailers found with aquatic hitchhikers will go through a free decontamination process that takes up to an hour.
The Ashland station is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Along with the I-84 station, others will open next week at Klamath Falls and Hines, forming Oregon's front line against hitchhiking aquatic invaders.
"We're not here to get anyone," Ressel says. "We're not here to write tickets. It's to keep these invasive species out of our beautiful lakes and rivers."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.