By Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, AUG. 6, 2009…..A pair of western Massachusetts lawmakers pitched legislation Thursday to prevent the spread of invasive species by imposing fines and potential jail time on boaters who fail to decontaminate their vessels.
Legislation pushed by Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) would ban boaters from launching a vessel exposed to contaminated waters over the last 30 days if their vessel has not first been properly decontaminated. The bill subjects boaters to fines of $50 to $300 and/or 60 days in jail.
“We need to have responsible boat owners,” said Pignatelli.
The bill (S 2113) was filed on the heels of the July 2 discovery of zebra mussels in Laurel Lake in Lee. On June 20, state officials began recommending that boat owners pay special attention to washing down their boats and equipment to help prevent the spread of non-native plants and other organisms.
The state has closed public boat ramps at Laurel Lake and Lake Buel in Monterrey and closed the Quabbin Reservoir to private boats. This weekend, in connection with a Special Olympics fishing tournament, state officials will power wash 25 to 30 boats and allow them on the Quabbin. Local officials have been urged to take precautions at municipally owned-boat ramps as well.
“It’s a bill whose importance has obviously grown,” Downing, who professed to knowing nothing of zebra mussels months ago, told the three members of the 16-member Environment Committee present for testimony on the bill.
The legislation also defines "invasive species" as an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.
According to the state, zebra mussels have been found in numerous bodies of water in the United States, including the entire Great Lakes region and lakes and rivers in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. The discovery of Zebra Mussels in Laurel Lake marked the first documentation of the aggressive invasive species in Massachusetts.
Nationally, taxpayers spend billions of dollars a year to control zebra mussel infestations, according to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. The mussels “out-compete juvenile fish for food and cling by the thousands to virtually everything in a water body - including docks, boats, other aquatic organisms, and various water intake pipes and instruments,” according to DCR. Microscopic juvenile zebra mussels can get into boat cooling systems and other water intakes and grow, clogging the systems.
The zebra mussel is a freshwater bivalve mollusk that looks like a small clam with a yellowish or brownish shell shaped like the letter "D." An inch or less in size, they have been found in numbers as high as 750,000 individuals per square meter. Their razor-sharp shells create a safety hazard for beachgoers. Once zebra mussels occupy a lake, there is no proven method of eradicating them.
Downing said he hoped the bill would help contain the spread of zebra mussels and prevent infections in other lakes and ponds. He called zebra mussels “incredibly resilient” and said each mussel can produce 30,000 eggs a day, or a million in one summer. Contamination of Laurel Lake could have begun as long as two years ago, he said.
He said he was aware of concerns about the proposed fines, but said other states, like Maine, have fines in the range of $500 to $5,000. There’s also talk at the State House of allowing a warning on first offense by amending the bill, which is also supported by Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) and Rep. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer).
Downing and Pignatelli said the bill’s passage was needed while a long-term comprehensive plan is worked out – state environmental officials told the News Service Thursday a draft plan will likely be released for public comment next week.
“The more I read about zebra mussels the scarier it gets,” said Pignatelli, who acknowledged there may be no way to stop the spread of zebra mussels since it can be spread on the wings of geese.
Added Downing, “There is a lot of confusion in the region we represent about the best way to address this. It’s a massive challenge.”
In addition to addressing enforcement issues, lawmakers also want to hear more about the bill from the Patrick administration and environmental groups, committee co-chair Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett) said.
“We know time is of the essence on this issue,” said co-chair Sen. Anthony Petruccelli. The East Boston Democrat, noting “planes, trains and automobiles” are the big focus in his district, said he’s relying on the experts for advice on how to proceed with invasive species prevention and management.