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Our mindset is the biggest obstacle to achieving success against aquatic invasive species

We do not have to accept destroyed health and biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems, impaired water quality, threatened native species, and impeded access for recreational use.

Department of Natural Resources Minnesota River specialist Tony Sindt holding a bighead carp caught in February 2016 on the Minnesota River.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

One of the biggest threats to Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and wetlands and the economic and environmental benefits they provide are aquatic invasive species (AIS). The challenges we face to prevent further spread of AIS already in Minnesota — and preventing the introduction of even more destructive species that have not yet been introduced to our waters — are sobering.

Still there is hope. We do not have to accept a future for our children and grandchildren defined by unchecked AIS spread. We do not have to accept destroyed health and biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems, impaired water quality, threatened native species, and impeded access for recreational use. We do not have to bequeath a water legacy of negative economic impacts to businesses, tourism, property values, and in turn, the local tax base. We can be successful in our efforts to prevent the further spread of AIS both into Minnesota and within Minnesota.

The first and biggest hurdle, the one upon which all success ultimately depends, however, is our mindset.

We must set success as the outcome and give up the stilted notion that there is nothing that can be done. Conceding defeat ensures one inevitable outcome: AIS will continue to spread, establish and degrade our lakes, rivers, and wetlands – likely at an increasing rate.

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We are not naïve to the seemingly insurmountable challenges posed by AIS and work everyday to address them. We know that solutions will not be easy, fast or cheap. However, we are hopeful for many reasons and believe that if anyone, at any time, could move forward to solve AIS problems, it is Minnesota right now. 

Our biggest dilemma: Humans spread AIS

Success will require navigating a core dilemma. AIS are almost exclusively spread by human use of our waters. Yet the use of our lakes and rivers is the core value we are trying to protect. There is no AIS spread without human use, and there is no value without human access.

Solving our water problems will require broad partnerships, education, scientific advancements and political will.

Nicholas Phelps
Nicholas Phelps

In recent years Minnesota has been coming together to fight back against AIS. New partnerships have been organized to include lake associations, watershed, soil and water conservation districts, Minnesota DNR resource managers, county AIS specialists, tournament anglers, business leaders, academics, law enforcement, resort owners, faith community and tribal leaders to put good AIS programs in place. With strong local involvement in these programs, buy-in has been near universal and both efficiency and efficacy greatly improved.

Never before have local citizens been so proactive and engaged. Their energy is driving both local and statewide action. Due to demand by citizens and local units of government, Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates hosted the Aquatic Invaders Summit for the last two years. It is one of the largest citizen-led water conferences in the state. Many people are also contributing their time to find and report new infestations as part of programs like AIS Detectors, a statewide network of trained volunteers, offered by University of Minnesota Extension. In many areas local people have formed AIS Task Forces within their county, and are driving programs and innovation.

Our biggest need: s​cience-based solutions, nonpartisan support

Even with the best intentions, we cannot solve the problems of today with the solutions from yesterday. Researchers with the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC) have been working quickly to develop science-based solutions. MAISRC scientists have developed a deterrent strategy to prevent Asian carp from making their way up the Minnesota and St. Croix Rivers, and are beginning to understand the role AIS have played in the collapse of the walleye fishery on Mille Lacs. Its also starting to convert research findings into science-based tools to prevent pathways of AIS spread, to name a few. We know more questions exist, but we also know that they can be answered.

Importantly, AIS efforts in Minnesota have been markedly bipartisan in an era of political division. Legislators and policymakers at both the federal and state level have been engaged and effective. Minnesota’s congressional delegation was able to close the locks at St. Anthony Falls to prevent the northward migration of Asian carp into the upper Mississippi River valley.

Jeff Forester

State legislators have provided the Minnesota DNR with a powerful legislative framework within which to implement AIS programs. However, they also correctly recognized that the MN DNR couldn’t do the job alone, and created MAISRC in 2012 and the County AIS Prevention Aid Program in 2015 to make local partnerships between the counties and other agencies robust, authentic and effective.

Not only are these innovative programs having immediate on-the-ground impact, they are also leveraging additional local involvement. Philanthropic giving to AIS efforts by local communities has nearly doubled since the County AIS Prevention Aid Program began. However, continued funding is needed to advance solutions-based research, plus the resources for implementing solutions at the state and local level once they are identified.

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Still, there are those prone to believe that, “We cannot stop AIS. Life will find a way. It is only a matter of time until AIS spread to every lake in the state.” If everyone agreed with this view, we would be destined to that end. We ask you to imagine this world — every lake choked with weeds and toxic alga, devoid of walleye and other game fish, mats of invasive vegetation so thick that navigation is impossible, swimming dangerous, the very smell repellent. 

Our brightest future

​If this is the vision we pursue, even if only by inaction, impaired lakes and rivers will be the future our children and grandchildren endure.

Instead we pursue a different vision, a vision that has active citizens both inside and outside government working together to protect a cherished public good of healthy lake and river ecosystems. We will work together to achieve the scientific breakthroughs, to further develop the critical civic frameworks of partnerships and relationships and grassroots energy that will put effective local programs on the ground and ensure programs are informed by science.

The future of Minnesota’s lake and river heritage is being written now. There is a place for all citizens to choose a role for themselves, to call their local lake association, county AIS planner or water resource manager or extension office, to commit the time, energy, expertise or financial support to this cause.

In our work in science and in public policy we have learned a simple truth: If we envision failure, we will fail always. If we envision success, and work toward success, we may fail many times, but in the end we will build the future we have imagined.

Nicholas Phelps, Ph.D., is the director of the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center. ​J​eff Forester is the executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates.


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