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Photo: John Downing

John A. Downing

Good navigation means looking over the bow to avoid hazards, find safe harbors and stay on course in stormy weather. Because of federal budget negotiations, I stared over the bow for countless hours last year working to captain Minnesota Sea Grant through uncertainty. It is a pleasure, therefore, to take a moment at the start of 2018 to look over the stern at the turbulent waters we’ve passed through.

I am grateful to everyone who supported Minnesota Sea Grant during the past months, including Minnesota’s congressional delegation from both sides of the aisle. This support reflects the many testimonials people wrote that highlighted how Minnesota Sea Grant helped businesses, industries and the daily lives of Minnesotans. There is the strong possibility that the President may again suggest a zero budget for Sea Grant, so we may need to call upon you again.

Minnesota Sea Grant is planning an exciting future. Through a new strategic plan and details about its execution, we’ve charted a course toward effective and efficient ways to assist Minnesotans and coastal communities wrestling with aquatic issues. In addition to current programming, we are planning initiatives that use emerging technologies to attack water problems. Water, after all, is the most important strategic resource on the planet and Minnesotans are blessed with an amazing quantity of high-quality water!

As I write, the snow has closed in, the wood has been stacked, cabin pipes have been drained, windows shuttered, engines winterized, and docks and boat lifts have been pulled. With the end of the boating season came the unfortunate discovery that more entries need to be added to the list of waters colonized by an increasing variety of aquatic invasive species (AIS) radiating from a mounting number of water bodies. In the Itasca County lake next to where I grew up and my family has lived for 108 summers, invasive starry stonewort likely joined the banded mystery snail last year, although this is unconfirmed. In nearby lakes, three new zebra mussel infestations were confirmed. As of November 2017, 72 new infestations had been reported to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2017 - 51 of which were zebra mussels. AIS damage to property values, industry, domestic infrastructure and sport fishing is in the millions of dollars.

Some have suggested that fighting AIS is a losing battle. I think not. Minnesota Sea Grant and our partners across the state work tirelessly using new and intensified methods to slow the spread of AIS. In epidemiology, to slow the spread of disease is to save lives. In an AIS context, it is to "save lakes."

Graph: Logarithmic function of Minnesota waters infested with invasive species over 50 years.

Graph of the logarithmic function of Minnesota waters infested with invasive species over 50 years. A straight line on this scale indicates a constant rate of infestation. Data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Wondering about the rate of expansion of invasive species in Minnesota and whether education and outreach efforts have helped to prevent their spread, I downloaded the infested waters list from the DNR. Using this information, I graphed the rate of infestation over time. It doesn’t take a statistician to see that there are two distinct rates: 12 percent per year between 1985 and 1992, and 6 percent per year since 1992.

When I asked Doug Jensen, Minnesota Sea Grant’s AIS coordinator what happened to change the rate, his answer was simple: The Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990. He added that the DNR and Minnesota Sea Grant started major outreach and education efforts to help slow the spread of AIS in 1992, effectively cutting the rate of infestation in half. An average of only 45 new invaded water bodies have been added to the list annually since 2012. This number would be much higher without the efforts of our partners and volunteers across the state. If the rate of infestation had continued at 12 percent, nearly every waterbody in the state would now contain at least one aquatic invader.

Thank you again for being interested in the impacts and accomplishments of Minnesota Sea Grant. Our job is to find the water science you need and get it into your hands in a usable form. If the science does not exist, we endeavor to get it built. We are honored to have the opportunity to serve the people of this great state.

By John A. Downing
January 2018

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