California responds to mussel threat

Possible closure of Clear Lake looms for tournament anglers

LAKE COUNTY, Calif. — Water managers face a challenge that could ultimately result in the closing of Clear Lake to tournament angling, causing millions of dollars in economic losses to an angling and business community that is prospering of late because of its prolific bass fishery.

"Clear Lake is the best bass fishery in the country," said Aaron Martens, the 2005 BASS Angler of the Year.

"Losing Clear Lake as a fun-fishing lake, let alone a tournament destination, would be heartbreaking."

The threat of closure comes in a small package. The quagga or zebra mussels, two exotic species each about the size of a fingernail that were first introduced in the Great Lakes via ballast water from oceangoing ships, are quickly spreading across the West. The exotic shellfish were discovered in the lower Colorado River in 2007.

Weighing the costs of dealing with potential infestations, water managers in California and other Western states are committed to protecting their lakes and reservoirs. Among the proposals is the elimination of boating and fishing.

"This is a huge problem for us right now," explained Pamela Francis, spokesperson for the Lake County Water Resources Board.

"Our board of supervisors met March 25 and passed an Urgency Ordinance in an effort to keep mussels out of Clear Lake. We ordered several portable cleaning stations and put in place a mandatory inspection process for all boats in the county."

The problem facing the Lake County Water Resources Board is implementation.

"Currently, there are only six locations in the county that offer inspections for boats," continued Francis. "The ordinance is now in place. Oncea boat is inspected, its owner will receive a sticker showing the boat to be mussel-free. We hope this will curb the threat until we can put the rest of our plans in motion, sometime in June, we hope."

Penalties for being stopped without a sticker are serious. "If boats don't have the [inspection] sticker and are caught on the water, they will be fined, potentially charged with a misdemeanor, and will face having their boat impounded. We're serious about compliance," Francis told BASS Times.

Though anglers are perceived to be the culprits in spreading exotic mussels throughout the West, Francis is quick to point out that they're not the only focus. "I'm convinced that professional anglers take great care of their boats. My fear is that someone who doesn't hold to a professional standard will contaminate the lake. We believe that houseboats and other watercraft could be responsible for spreading the mussels as well."

It's estimated that the cost of running the inspection stations, when installed, will cost several million dollars a year to man and operate. With this added expense comes another stern warning. "If we find one bass boat without a sticker, you can kiss tournaments on Clear Lake goodbye for next year — and that's a promise," warned Francis.

Because of the heavy tournament load on Clear Lake, groups of people who object to tournament angling for various reasons are leading the charge to ban events. "There are a lot of angry people in this area," said Francis.

"They will be watching for someone to break the law."

Water managers believe that tournament anglers must adopt a "clean and dry" protocol in order to protect themselves from problems when taking their boats to and from infested waters, according to Francis. "If anglers were to obtain a certificate that states their boats were cleaned, inspected and found to be mussel-free as they leave infested waters, and their boats remain dry for five days before coming here, it will be a much simpler process to inspect boats."

Lake County officials won't stop until a solution to the mussel threat is found. "Although we don't want to ban tournaments or curtail boating on Clear Lake," concluded Francis, "the Casitas board had no problem banning boats for a year, and Cachuma's board lacked one vote from having the same outcome. We were just one vote short of closing Clear Lake ourselves last month.

"I hope we're able to work through this challenge, but there are no guarantees."

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