Lake Whatcom boat checks going smoothly

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 1, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - About 1,200 boats have been inspected this year as part of a city-county effort to keep harmful shellfish out of Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish.

Clare Fogelsong, city environmental resources manager, told the City Council on Monday, July 1, that the boat-checking process has gone relatively smoothly, despite some complaints from boat owners about delays and fees.

Fogelsong said most boat owners are choosing to buy the $50 annual inspection tag, rather than pay for a $20 day pass. As of June 28, just 37 day passes had been sold, while 1,092 boaters have purchased the annual permits.

Fogelsong said the total number of boat tags sold was approaching 1,200 as of Monday, after a hot and sunny weekend drew large numbers of boaters to the Bloedel Donovan Park boat launch on Lake Whatcom. Preliminary figures indicate that another 116 annual permits were sold over the weekend.

For the convenience of boaters who only ply the waters of Lake Whatcom, the city's system offers an inspection seal that is wired between boat and trailer when a boat is hauled out. If the boat later returns to the launch with the seal intact, the owner can launch without another detailed inspection.

The mandatory inspections began April 27 as a reaction to the discovery of well-established populations of Asian clams in Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden. Although the clams are not causing any difficulties at this point, their presence raised fears that Whatcom County lakes also could be vulnerable to invasions of zebra and quagga mussels, which can be carried from one lake to another by recreational boaters.

Those bivalves are natives to Asia, and they have caused major problems when they have shown up in other North American lakes. They can form large masses on shorelines and docks, and they foul boats. They are also capable of clogging water intake systems, making them of special concern on Lake Whatcom, the source of city drinking water.

The inspection system also has been imposed at Lake Samish, out of fear that if the mussels became established there, it would become more difficult to prevent their eventual introduction into Lake Whatcom. Lake Samish is also a drinking water source for some in the vicinity.

Jon Hutchings, the city's assistant director of public works, said that so far the inspections have not found any evidence of mussel contamination on boats entering the two lakes. Inspectors have, however, removed small pieces of invasive plant species that can have undesirable side effects if they become established.

This year, inspections are not required for smaller hand-carried boats, such as canoes and kayaks. Those watercraft might seem to be a lesser risk, but the establishment of Asian clams at Lake Padden - a motor-free lake - demonstrates that smaller craft also can carry undesirable species.

City Council member Michael Lilliquist asked if the inspection requirement should be extended to all boats next year. Fogelsong said that would be worth consideration, but added that more inspections would mean more staff and more expenses. As things stand now, the inspection fees are expected to cover about half the cost of the program.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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