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Unwelcome visitors: The Department of Game & Fish calls on boaters to help keep invasive aquatic species out of New Mexico waters

Boats wait to be inspected for invasive aquatic species. New Mexico is one of just five states in the continental United States slowing a clean slate from the invasive species that have been wreaking havoc in water bodies across the country. (Courtesy of the Department of Game & Fish)

The map showing the spread of zebra and quagga mussels is far too fast turning an ugly red for high-risk.

Currently, New Mexico is one of just five states in the continental United States slowing a clean slate from the invasive species that have been wreaking havoc in bodies of water across the country.

And state officials are doing everything possible to make sure it stays that way, for the first time installing bilingual billboards at Elephant Butte and Caballo lakes warning of the dangers posed by the pervasive mussels.

“They’re threatening from an economy and an environmental standpoint,” said Jamie Dominguez, aquatic invasive species (AIS) coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish.

“They have the ability to reproduce on a large scale and when they do that, the can clog infrastructure, overtake native species and attack recreational activities like swimming and boating.”

Thomas Gillespie inspects a watercraft for invasive aquatic species at Navajo Reservoir. (Courtesy of the Department of Game & Fish)

Signs inform boaters to “clean, drain and dry” their watercraft and that watercraft need an inspection when they come to an open inspection station.

Officials are stepping up inspections at lakes across New Mexico, he said, something that has actually been going on for some time.

Since 2013, the state has conducted 198,993 inspections, Dominguez said, including 42,526 in 2019 alone. Over that time, the state has been force to complete 978 decontaminations, with 209 of those occurring last year.

The critters originated in the Black and Caspian seas and first made their way into the U.S. in the late 1980s through commercial ships, Dominguez said, then have been spreading across the country ever since.

“If you don’t completely drain your boat, they’re residing in the water,” he said. “Then they get into the next water body and start spreading from there.”

Although New Mexico is a desert state, its bodies of water are popular draws for out-of-state boaters.

Among the measures implemented:

• Mandatory watercraft inspection and, if necessary, decontamination of out-of-state registered watercraft or watercraft re-entering New Mexico.

• Mandatory watercraft inspection required any time an inspection station is set up and in operation.

• Fourteen-day advanced notification of intent to transport watercraft 26 feet or longer into New Mexico.

• All watercraft are required to “pull the plug” and drain watercraft when transporting in New Mexico.

• Implementation of a voluntary watercraft seal program to expedite boater access to a water body with limited need for inspection.

Inspectors are at Elephant Butte and Navajo lakes full time, year-round, and at Conchas and Ute lakes fulltime during the summer. Inspectors are also hitting the state’s other lakes on a rotating basis.

“We’re really trying to get the education message out there to the public, Dominguez said. “There are so many boaters and so many boats. What we do is ask them to be responsible and we take care of it from there. We do it free of charge, it just takes a little of their time.”

Longtime boater Rudy Chavez, an Albuquerque attorney, said he’s been undergoing the inspections for some time.

“I’ve done a bunch of them, pretty much at every lake in New Mexico,” he said. At Elephant Butte, “they just have you lined up and they check you real quick. When you’re done, you can get checked again, get a seal on your boat hitch and when you come back, if the seal isn’t broken you don’t have to wait for an inspector.”

The process is very smooth and quick, Chavez said.

“You lower your outdrive and pull the plug at the back of the boat to see if there is any water,” he said. “It doesn’t take long at all.”

It makes sense to try and combat the issue before the waterways have been struck, Dominguez said.

“New Mexico water is very scarce so we don’t want to put another impact on it to make it harder to use,” he said. “Outreach and education are the primary activities to get people to buy in on why we’re doing this. We’re fighting on all fronts. Thus far we’ve been successful. States that do have them, it becomes preventative and containment of the water bodies and you end up spending more time and effort.”