Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2010

There is nothing more relaxing and exhilarating than the clean smell of a freshwater stream, and the peaceful sound of water cascading over rocks on a clear summer day. Everything seems so perfect. With fishing rod in hand, you cast out for another try. You hope this day and the fishing will never end. Many anglers dream and live for days like this. But unknowingly, our angling boots may be harming Alaska's streams by transporting aquatic invasive species from one stream to another.

In an effort to prevent the arrival and spread of aquatic invasive species, the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted unanimously to prohibit the use of felt-soled wading boots while angling in Alaska's freshwater streams beginning Jan. 1, 2012. This action was proposed by Trout Unlimited because of concerns that felt soled wading boots can transport aquatic invasive species. Some anglers prefer felt-soled wading boots because of the traction they provide on slippery gravel streambeds. A drawback of felt soles is that they remain wet for extended periods after removal from water. The wet felt material provides an environment for pest organisms to survive outside of an infected stream. Unknowingly these organisms can then be introduced to a new body of water the next time the boots are worn.

Aquatic invasive species can cause devastating economic and environmental harm; some can even cause harm to human health. Aquatic invasive species such as whirling disease, didymo (rock snot), and New Zealand mud snails can easily attach to felt soles of wading boots. Whirling disease is a parasite that infects trout and salmon, causing cartilage damage and deformation. Fish with whirling disease are unable to swim normally and swim in an uncontrolled whirling pattern.

Didymo or rock snot is freshwater algae that is native to some of Alaska's waters but may be changing its growth form and spreading to new waters. Where it has become invasive, didymo forms slimy-looking mats over aquatic vegetation and rocks. Didymo can completely smother a lake or stream, adversely affecting water quality, aquatic invertebrates, and various life stages of fish.

New Zealand mud snails are tiny (1/8-inch) snails that reproduce quickly and in high numbers, sometimes reaching densities of a half-million per square yard.

They can starve a stream of its natural food supply because they feed on the algae and detritus that normally are the food source for aquatic insects which in turn are prey for young salmon and trout.

Currently, the majority of Alaska's streams and rivers are relatively free of aquatic invasive species. However, evidence of the whirling disease parasite was confirmed in 2007 at the Elmendorf State Fish Hatchery in Anchorage. Didymo was detected in two streams near Juneau, prompting the Board of Fish to ban the use of felt-soled wading boots in Southeast Alaska beginning January 2011. With the statewide ruling this date has been changed to January 2012.

As a result of the negative effects on aquatic ecosystems, other states and countries have spent millions to prevent or control the spread of aquatic invasive species and have lost millions in revenue.

The invasion of didymo prompted New Zealand to ban the use of felt-soled wading boots in 2008. In Vermont a bill to ban the use of felt-soled wading boots has passed the House and Senate and awaits only the Governor's signature to become law.

Other legislatures from Maryland to New Mexico are considering similar bans. In the interim, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is strongly urging anglers to try alternatives to felt-soled wading boots. Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has recently implemented a regulation requiring all watercraft using Wyoming waters to display an Aquatic Invasive Species decal. Fees from the decal program will be used for prevention, enforcement, education, and implantation of aquatic invasive species regulations.

Maine has a similar decal requirement which was recently extended to cover float planes as well. In addition to these actions many wading boot manufacturers and retailers are supporting aquatic invasive species prevention by developing alternatives to felt soled wading products.

Alaska enacted this new regulation as a preventative measure because of the threat to native species and the ecological stability of our pristine waters, as well as the potential economic and environmental threat to commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries. Felt-soled wading boots are only part of the problem; aquatic invasive species can also spread from other equipment and gear as well. However, this ban is a major step in preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species and protecting our ecosystems and fisheries.

The value of Alaska's precious resources is unmatched. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we do our part to keep them intact by carefully inspecting, cleaning, and drying all angling gear and equipment.

More information on prevention and spreading of aquatic invasive species can be found on the following websites: and

Cheryl Anderson is a Fish and Wildlife Biologist with the Kenai Fish and Wildlife Field Office.

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