At least nine trailered boats checked recently at Montana's roadside watercraft inspection stations have been found to be transporting live fish, which is illegal in Montana's Western and Central Fishing Districts.
Watercraft inspection stations at Coram, Ronan and Thompson Falls in northwestern Montana; at Wolf Creek north of Helena; and at Hardin south of Billings have turned up more than 58 live fish in water-filled tanks used on a variety of fishing boats to keep bait and caught fish alive. Fish found being transported on Montana roads in boat "live wells" included yellow perch, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye.
"Moving live fish from the water in which they were caught is illegal in most of the state and can lead to big trouble if those fish are placed into other waters," said Bruce Rich, FWP's fisheries chief in Helena. "New fish in any river or lake can change—and sometimes destroy—existing fisheries because new species may not be compatible with the fish already there or could even cause major environmental damage."
Rich said rather than illegally transporting caught fish from streams and lakes in live wells, anglers should put their catch in coolers and place the fish on ice to keep them fresh on the way home.
All boats being trailered or hauled in Montana—including rafts, kayaks and canoes—must stop and be checked at watercraft inspection stations. Signs are posted or placed on the highway alerting motorists trailering boats where to pull over ahead of time. The inspectors are looking for zebra and quagga mussels and other aquatic nuisance plants or animals that are being transported from other states and locales.
The penalty for transporting live fish in Montana is a maximum of $1,000, six months in jail and forfeiture of hunting and fishing licenses.
FWP's mandatory watercraft inspection stations are located at 18 strategic highway locations and boat ramps in Montana. Crews typically inspect more than 30,000 boats—about 4,000 from out-of-state—from mid-May to Labor Day.
Crews regularly find vegetation on boats and trailers, including numerous cases of Eurasian watermilfoil and other problem-causing plants over the course of a season. Crews also often find standing water in boats, which can harbor aquatic invasive species, particularly in the bilge area and in live wells.
A bright spot in the inspection effort, however, also shows that crews are reporting that more boat owners are becoming familiar with FWP's "Inspect-Clean-Dry'' education campaign. As a result, more boats are showing up at inspection stations with boat plugs out and live wells drained.
"Our best defense against invasive species is to inspect, clean, and dry boats, trailers, and fishing gear after each use," Rich said. "If all boaters and anglers get into the 'Inspect, Clean and Dry' habit, they'll help to reduce unintentional introductions of harmful species into Montana's streams and lakes."
Boat owners said that their recent efforts to help stop the spread of unwanted aquatic invasive species are a direct response to information received from previous inspections on the importance of having a drained and dry boat.
For more information about Montana fishing regulations and Montana's fishing districts pick up a copy of Montana's Fishing Regulations at any FWP office and from most license providers. For information on aquatic invasive species, visit FWP's website at fwp.mt.gov; then click "Stop the Spread".