Do young people need to be warned of the threat of aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels through Snapchat ads because traditional messaging doesn't appear to be working?
One researcher thinks so, because all it would take is one kayak, paddleboard, raft, motorboat or surfboard with stray larvae that don't belong to destroy the wildlife in western Montana's lakes, rivers and streams for centuries.
A new report from the University of Montana suggests that the state needs to do a better job of explaining just how big a threat aquatic invasive species pose to the state’s important outdoor recreation areas and the massive portion of the economy that they support.
Although nearly 75 percent of Montanans participate in outdoor water recreation activities like fishing, river surfing and kayaking, 21 percent of residents were unaware of water closures last year due to the threat of aquatic invasive species. That’s according to figures released Monday by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) at UM.
“Our data shows that Montanans love their water and the ability to fish, play and boat on our waterways,” said Norma Nickerson, director of the ITRR. “But what could be a bit alarming is the lack of awareness by some of our residents.”
In August 2016, a parasite that killed thousands of Yellowstone River whitefish sparked a nearly monthlong river closure that shut down fishing guides in the area. Later, in November, the discovery of invasive mussel larvae temporarily closed the Tiber Reservoir, and the threat of a spread of the mussels prompted precautionary water closures on Canyon Ferry Reservoir, Glacier National Park waterways and on the Blackfeet Reservation.
It was a five-alarm fire for fisheries managers in the state, but it barely registered with a lot of people, especially young people.
An ITRR study that surveyed nearly 12,000 Montanans ages 18 and older at gas stations and rest stops throughout the state earlier this year found that a shocking number of younger anglers were unaware of these closures.
“When we analyzed the data by age group, it was quite evident that older Montanans were very aware of these invasive species and the closure of waterways, but 47 percent of Montanans between 18 and 25 had not heard of either of the closures this past year, and 30 percent of 26- to 35-year-olds also hadn’t heard of the events,” Nickerson said. “In comparison, only 10 to 11 percent of Montanans 56 and older had not heard of the invasive species and the closures.”
Invasive mussels, which have devastated water bodies back East and in the Midwest, wreak ecological havoc by taking out the microscopic portion of the food chain that fish and other organisms depend on. They also have no natural predators. All it would take would be one boat, with invasive mussel larvae from somewhere in the Southwest, to take a spin on Flathead Lake and the entire Columbia River watershed — which includes the Clark Fork and the Flathead rivers — would be irrevocably devastated.
Nickerson said 58 percent of Montana residents 18 and older participate in bank or wade fishing, and 50 percent participate in boat fishing — the two most popular resident water recreation activities. But the introduction of invasive aquatic species into the state’s waterways is challenging Montana’s favorite pastime.
Nickerson said the lack of awareness by younger Montanans is worrisome, because the health of Montana waterways dictates the quality of fishing. Reaching younger age groups through traditional media outlets, like TV, radio and newspapers, is likely not working, she said. She believes agencies must diversify their communication and education methods, including using all forms of social media, and working with age-related social leaders as a conduit for communication.
“Without a full understanding and awareness by residents of why these closures happen, spread of the invasive aquatic species is more likely,” Nickerson concluded.