SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are considering whether to strengthen the state’s defenses against invasive aquatic mussels that threaten both irrigation systems and ecosystems.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee has introduced legislation creating a new penalty for people who refuse to subject their boats to inspection for quagga and zebra mussels at checkpoints, among other measures.
The mussels threaten to clog irrigation intakes and disrupt habitats for native fish species.
Currently, drivers hauling boats who don’t stop at check points can be ticketed for traffic violations. The stations are located at common entry points for watercraft along Oregon’s borders.
Under House Bill 2321, drivers who are pulled over by police within five miles of failing to stop at a checkpoint can be charged with a misdemeanor if they refuse to return for inspection.
If convicted, the crime would be punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,250.
The legislation would also eliminate a current exemption under which operators of non-motorized watercraft under 10 feet in length, such as kayaks, don’t have to buy Aquatic Invasive Species Permits, which cost $5 a year.
Money collected from selling such permits is used to control invasive aquatic species.
Boats would have to be drained of all water before leaving a river or lake under HB 2321, with operators facing a penalty of $30 for non-motorized watercraft and $50 for motorized watercraft in they don’t comply with this requirement.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of boats inspected for invasive mussels has grown from fewer than 3,000 to more than 16,000 per year, said Scott Brewen, director of the Oregon Marine Board, during a Feb. 2 committee hearing.
While compliance with the check points has improved in recent years, about 18 percent of boaters still didn’t stop for inspections in 2016, spurring the idea for HB 2321, he said.
Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, said she sympathized with the intent of the bill but was concerned about the potential for boaters to be charged with a misdemeanor, the same class of crime as some thefts and assaults.
Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said he wasn’t thrilled about eliminating the permit exemption for non-motorized watercraft under 10 feet in length, but he said these points would be further debated in the future.
During the Feb. 2 hearing, lawmakers also considered House Bill 2266, which pertains to funding for hatchery fish research.
Currently, unobligated money left over in the Oregon Hatchery Research Center Fund is transferred to the Oregon Hatchery Construction Fund at the end of each fiscal year.
Under HB 2266, that money would be allowed to remain in the fund dedicated to hatchery research.