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The Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! Phenomenon

Photo: Removing invasive watermilfoil from a boat trailer before leaving the landing

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service and a small cadre of partners launched a successful public service campaign in 2002 in no small part because of two Minnesotans with "get 'er done" moxie. The campaign? Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!TM The Minnesotans? Doug Jensen, Minnesota Sea Grant's aquatic invasive species program coordinator, and Jay Rendall, retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources invasive species prevention coordinator. Jensen and Rendall dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours examining public responses to messages designed to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS).

Jensen is quick to recount the history of the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign, which continues to change the way Minnesota and the nation tackle one of the planet's most vexing environmental, recreational and economic problems. "The campaign formed out of dozens of conversations about natural resource protection, social science and strategic planning," said Jensen. "Currently there about 1,400 organizations in the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! community."

Timeline of Aquatic Invasive Species Management in Minnesota


  • AIS - aquatic invasive species

  • ANS - aquatic nuisance species

  • MNDNR - Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

  • MNSG - Minnesota Sea Grant

1984: Citizens initiate grassroots efforts to curtail the spread of purple loosestrife.

1987: Eurasian watermilfoil discovered (Lake Minnetonka); MNDNR establishes purple loosestrife and Eurasian watermilfoil management programs.

1989: Zebra mussels discovered (Duluth-Superior Harbor); MNDNR establishes a Zebra Mussel Management Program.

1990: U.S. Congress passes Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act forming the ANS Task Force.

1991: Great Lakes Panel on ANS convenes. MNSG forms Exotic Species
Information Center.

1992: Minnesota is first state to fight spread of AIS through a program of public education, enforcement and watercraft inspection.

1994: MNSG provides baseline of awareness and behavior by conducting a survey of boaters in three states.

1998: MNSG joins Great Lakes Panel on ANS.

2000: MNSG survey of boaters shows increased awareness. ANS Task Forceís Recreational Activity Guidelines are federally approved.

2002: Launch of Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!TM

2006: MNSG and MNDNR actively apply Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign. Wildlife Forever enters as major campaign partner.

2007: MNSG survey shows campaign further raises awareness and changes behaviors.

2010-2015: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding accelerates Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!

2011: Pull the Plug Law in Minnesota; $250 fine for boaters who transport or launch boats with bilge plug not removed.

2013: Updated ANS Task Forceís Recreational Activity Guidelines federally approved.

2017: Debut of the new Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! website.

Prior to the campaign, most efforts to curtail the advance of AIS focused on
raising awareness about specific species. As AIS continued to spread, states replaced information-based programs with action-oriented initiatives, which seemed like progress at first. However, the action messages were inconsistent among states. Some were too complex. A few were even misguided. It became apparent that a singular campaign that could resonate across the nation was necessary, ŗ la Smokey the Bear, which debuted in 1944. The new campaign needed to be simple, convenient, free and most importantly effective in changing the behaviors of boaters and anglers. It needed to be Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!

But first, the federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, co-chaired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, needed consistent and comprehensive guidelines for preventing the spread of AIS. They achieved these guidelines by creating a Recreational Activities Committee and capitalizing on Rendallís and Jensenís studies of messaging, a messageís social acceptance and its influence on behavior. The guidelines served as the cornerstone for the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign.

Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! has made a difference, particularly in "the land of 10,000 lakes" where the campaign's distinctive stop-sign-like logo and clean-drain-dry messaging can be seen on everything from billboards to bumper stickers. In a public statement in 2010, Joe Starinchak, outreach coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Branch of Invasive Species, praised Minnesota for creating a template for the rest of the country. He applauded the way the state implemented the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign through a small grants program for lake associations and by using a carrot-and-stick approach that combines voluntary actions with regulatory tools.

Compared to the spread of AIS in other states, Jensen says Minnesota is doing exceptionally well. "If the spread of AIS was inevitable, all of our lakes would be infested by now, but they're not," he said. "A variety of assessments and surveys demonstrate significant increases in public awareness because of the campaign.
We've had up to 97 percent of Minnesota boaters and anglers report taking
preventative actions to protect lakes and rivers. This is up from 70 percent reported over 20 years ago."

Are behaviors actually changing? Yes. Compliance with AIS laws in Minnesota has increased to 96 percent, based on more than 102,441 watercraft inspections in 2016, according to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report.* Only 5 percent of Minnesota lakes are infested with AIS, which is remarkable given that Minnesota has 866,000 registered boats, 1.5 million licensed anglers and more than 3,600 public launches.

Minnesota Sea Grant's efforts to prevent the spread of AIS through Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding were calculated to be worth more than $6 million in 2016 by Minnesota Sea Grant's director, John Downing. This impressive sum reflects protecting lakeshore property values and sport fishing profits from invasive plants like Eurasian watermilfoil, which hampers recreational activities, and invasive fish like common carp, which damage the catch rates of more desirable fish species.

"Minnesota continues to be a leader in preventing the spread of aquatic invaders," said Jensen. "I and my colleagues at Minnesota Sea Grant are proud to have been an important part of this trajectory and we're excited about participating in innovative new ways to combat AIS."

*State of Minnesota, Department of Natural Resources. 2017. Invasive Species 2016 Annual Report. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 60pp.

By Sharon Moen
January 2018

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