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State continues to fight aquatic invaders

Despite the ongoing fight against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Oregon continues to fight its border war against hitchhiking invaders that threaten Oregon waterways.

The state’s boat-inspection stations — including the oldest and busiest one along Interstate 5 at the Ashland Port of Entry near milepost 15 — remain fully operational in the quest to keep aquatic invaders such as quagga and zebra mussels at bay.

The station is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to inspect every boat under mandatory rules that require everyone hauling a watercraft of any sort to stop for the free inspection.

Inspections that lead to the discovery of nonnative mussels — or hitchhiking aquatic vegetation like Eurasian watermilfoil — lead to a free cleansing and disinfection before the boat gets a clean bill of health and is let into the state.

The Ashland station, and a similar one along Interstate 5 near Ontario, are considered the front lines of defense against aquatic invaders that could decimate Oregon waterways as they have done in the Midwest and other places.

And even if boat inspectors have to wear masks to reduce exposure to COVID-19, the work will go on.

“We’re considered essential personnel, so we’re still open,” said Rick Boatner, who runs the invasive species prevention program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “So we’re still in business. But as quickly as things can change, that could change tomorrow.”

While social distancing rules and widespread closures to water access points along lakes and rivers have seen private boat traffic drop to a crawl, commercial hauling of boats along I-5 continues to create a steady stream of crafts for inspection, Boatner said.

Inspections at the two sites were down about half to 120 boats last week, Boatner said. So far this season, inspections are up by 100 over last year at the two sites, he said.

All vehicles towing any motorized or nonmotorized boats, including canoes, kayaks, paddleboats and sailboats, must stop for inspections when the sites are open. Anyone failing to stop faces a $110 fine.

Quagga and zebra mussels are filter-feeders that syphon water to pluck out microscopic organisms and can throw food chains out of balance. Their sheer numbers when they attach to surfaces can clog pipes at reservoirs and damage boat motors. Giant water bodies turning aquamarine blue is a sign that the base of the food chain is being depleted, risking starvation for other species, including sport fish.

Since their discovery in Nevada’s Lake Mead in 2007, they have multiplied so fast that scientists now estimate the entire volume of the lake is filtered by the mussels every five days.

One estimate put an annual cost of dealing with invasive mussels in the Columbia River alone at $25 million should they populate that river.

Quagga mussels can be microscopic in size or up to more than an inch in length, and they attach themselves to boat surfaces or infest bilge water.

The species are native to Russia and Ukraine, and are believed to have arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s aboard ships that released ballast water into the Great Lakes.

In 2019, technicians inspected 26,875 watercraft coming into Oregon and found 400 with aquatic invasive species. Aquatic vegetation, as well as marine and freshwater organisms, contaminated 384 of those boats, and the remaining 16 had quagga or zebra mussels attached.

Contaminated boats came from Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Texas and Utah.

Last year, crews at the Ashland site intercepted five boats with quagga or zebra mussels, according to ODFW statistics.

The Ashland inspection station will expand its hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily next month. Also in May, seasonal stations at Brookings, Klamath Falls, Lakeview and Umatilla are scheduled to reopen, Boatner said.

The program costs about $500,000 a year and is funded through Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention permits, which are required for anyone operating a boat 10 feet or longer in Oregon waterways.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneRita Kivett of ODFW inspects the boat of Washington resident Breck Wilber at the Ashland Port of Entry Friday morning.