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Washing away invasive hitchhikers

Invasive species love to sneak a ride on boats.

There are more than 180 exotic species in the Great Lakes, and we help move them around.

Jo Latimore is an outreach specialist with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University.

“Research has shown that boats and trailers moving from one lake to another are the number one vector, the number one pathway of invasive species moving from one water body to the next,” she says.

A way to stop giving invasive species a hand

“We want to make it the in thing to wash your boat before you launch or before you depart,” Latimore says.

Credit Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio
The crew puts a sign out... but some people aren't sure what to make of the offer.

Latimore heads up a crew of student interns that's been traveling all over the state this summer (it's a project of MSU, the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality).

They’re towing a mobile boat washing station. It has two big water tanks, a diesel heater to warm up the water, and a hose for pressure washing.

They hang out at boat launches with a big sign that says “Free Boat Wash.”

But it’s not always an easy sell.

Sarah Plantrich is watching a guy take his boat out of Lake Lansing.

“They kind of look like they’re coming this way, so we might get lucky,” she says. “They might also try and hide and take the shortcut out that way. It happens.”

And he does turn them down.

Maggie Corcoran says they have about a 50% success rate.

“Most people are pretty positive about the message, but I think we get a lot of people who think we might be soliciting something from them because we’re asking them to come over and take stuff from us,” Corcoran says. “Even if we say ‘free boat wash,’ a lot of people perceive it as an inconvenience.”

In fact, this morning, nobody takes them up on it at all.

So they call a friend who lives nearby to show me how it’s done.

Mark Stevens says he washes his boat before he goes to a new lake. He says people just might not know they should.

“If you’re just a general boater, fisherman that doesn’t do it a lot, you might come to a spot and put your boat in and then leave and not even know that there’s a spray thing here,” he says.

Where to wash and what to watch out for

The crew turns the power washer on and they give Stevens’ boat a quick wash.     

Maggie Corcoran says the whole process takes about five minutes.

“We really focus on where the boat meets the trailer because that’s where plants tend to get stuck.”  

Credit Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio
A sign at Lake Lansing warns boaters about zebra mussels.

There’s actually a state law that makes it illegal to launch a boat in Michigan with any kind of aquatic plant attached to it.

But Jo Latimore says you’ve also got to watch out for other kinds of invaders. A boat’s bilge and live well can carry diseases or microscopic species. So she says you should always drain the water from your boat and let it dry.

And she says even canoes and kayaks can be a problem.

“Zebra mussel larvae can attach to the hull of your kayak and you may not know that, but by simply washing it or wiping it down or just letting it dry for a few days, you can prevent the spread of those things you might not even see,” she says.

In some places it's mandatory

So, Latimore and her team are trying to get people to wash their boats voluntarily, but other places are passing laws.

On Glen Lake in Leelanau County, it’s mandatory to wash your boat.

Two townships in the area passed an ordinance eight years ago. If you don’t wash your boat, you can get hit with a $500 fine.

Mike Litch is with the Glen Lake Association.

“But most people are very, very good about it and want to do the right thing and really compliment us on our work,” he says. “The ordinance is a good backup, but we’ve never had to turn anybody in if you will.”

He says they’ve been washing boats at Glen Lake for a couple decades. And he says it’s working – they have very few invasive species in the lake.

There's also a mandatory boat washing station at Crystal Lake in Benzie County.

To learn more about aquatic invasive species, visit the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System's website.

Boat washing tips — things to do before leaving a body of water 

  • Inspect your boat and remove any visible plants, fish or animals.
  • Remove plant fragments, mud and dirt, as it could contain the larvae — a younger and smaller version — of an invasive species.
  • Shake out all water from every recreational item used in the water.
  • Eliminate water from all motors, jet drives, live wells, boat hulls, scuba tanks and regulators, boots, waders, bait buckets, seaplane floats and swimming floats.
  • Then, with hot water or salt water, clean and dry everything that touched the water.
  • That includes your dog. Wash him with the warmest water possible and brush him thoroughly.
  • When hot water isn’t available, use high-pressure water to spray boat motors, trailers, anchors, decoys, floats and nets.

For more detailed instructions, including recommendations for how to wash off equipment that's hard to clean, visit this website

*This post has been updated.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.