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Poll: Boaters and anglers taking steps to prevent spread of invasive species

December 9, 2008

The vast majority of Wisconsin residents say that preventing the spread of VHS fish disease and other aquatic invasive species to new lakes and rivers is very important, a recent statewide poll shows.

Boaters and anglers, however, had a mixed track record in taking the required steps to prevent accidentally spreading the invaders. Boat traffic between lakes, and the transfer of infected baitfish from one water body to another, are the major ways that invasive species and VHS, respectively, are introduced to new waters.

“Wisconsin residents are clearly worried about the threat invasive species pose and place a high priority on stopping their spread,” says Bret Shaw, an assistant professor with the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Boaters and anglers are doing a good job in taking some of the prevention steps, but not all of them.

“Unfortunately, they are not taking some of the essential steps that would do the most to protect the Wisconsin lakes, rivers and fish they enjoy.”

The Oct. 21-28 UW-Madison Badger Poll found that 86.3 percent of residents consider preventing the spread of invasives “extremely” or “quite” important. That total climbed to 97.7 percent when adding in respondents who considered preventing the spread of invasive aquatic species and VHS fish disease as being “somewhat” important.

That high public concern reflects a variety of factors, Shaw says. A growing number of people now have had direct experience with the impacts of Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels and other invasive species as a growing number of water bodies become infested. Outreach efforts by state, local and federal agencies and organizations have matured, expanded and are having an effect; and the intense media coverage of VHS fish disease in 2007 raised the profile and understanding of the risks that aquatic invaders pose, particularly among anglers.

VHS, or viral hemorrhagic septicemia, is a new fish disease that is not a human health threat but can infect 37 different species of fish. As the infection worsens, symptoms include bulging eyes, bloated abdomens, inactive or overactive behavior, bleeding in the eyes, skin, gills and at the base of the fins. The disease spread from Europe to the northwest United States in the 1990s and in 2005 to the Great Lakes, and was detected for the first time in Wisconsin in fish from the Lake Winnebago system in May 2007. VHS also has been diagnosed in fish from Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan.

The Badger Poll survey showed that efforts over the last two decades to educate people about the prevention steps for aquatic invasive species have paid off, with a higher proportion of boaters and anglers taking certain steps. For instance, more than 90 percent reported inspecting their boats and trailers and removing all plants and animals before leaving a landing. Another 84 percent said they followed bait rules in place statewide since spring 2008, and in the Great Lakes and in Lake Winnebago since 2007, to stop the spread of VHS.

But only 56.8 percent said they rinse off the boat hull after taking their boat out of the water, a step advocated for the last two decades, and only 58 percent said they followed a 2008 statewide rule that prohibits, with a few exceptions, moving live fish away from a water.

“These results suggest there’s been some success, but that there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” Shaw says. “Boaters and anglers must do a better job if they want to protect the lakes and rivers they love.”

The Badger Poll surveyed 538 people randomly chosen within households with working land phone lines. The results were weighted to correct for those with only cell phones. Results from this survey have a margin of error of a little over plus or minus 4 percent.

The survey was commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in partnership with Shaw. He is helping the DNR, UW-Extension and UW Sea Grant develop information and outreach efforts about VHS and aquatic invasive species.

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