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Invasives like rock snot ride in on felt soles

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published June 3, 2012

In his Compass article ("Ban on felt soles more empty symbol than useful," May 29), Daniel Zivanich urged the Alaska Board of Fisheries to do away with the ban on felt soles while fishing in Alaska's fresh waters. He argued that non-felt soles are not safe in some waters, that the risk of transporting invasive species (whirling disease, Didymo, which is commonly called rock snot, and New Zealand mudsnails) is a theoretical threat and not proven, and that non-felt soles when used with metal studs damage boats and planes.

Initially, the Fish Board banned felt soles three years ago in Southeast Alaska fresh waters and then banned them statewide a year later. The regulation did not go into effect for nearly two years, allowing fishers and industry to use up inventory and acquire new boots. Since then, the Board of Game has banned the use of felt soles while hunting in fresh waters in Alaska.

Mr. Zivanich's arguments were all thoroughly discussed each time the matter came up and in each case the Fish Board passed the regulations either unanimously or by a large majority. The Alaska ban on felt soles is not a new approach to prevent the spread of invasive species. It is widely recognized that invasive species are transported by various means. Felt soles, unless thoroughly dried or decontaminated, are recognized as likely culprits in the methods of spreading the disease. They retain moisture, a haven for spores, for long periods of time. Those who fish waters in the Lower 48 and then travel to Alaska to fish may unwittingly transport invaders here.

Perhaps Mr. Zivanich has not seen the effects of these diseases. I have, and it is not a pretty sight. Whirling disease can and has wiped out trout waters, and unless checked, healthy trout will not return. Rock snot has already been found in some fresh waters in Alaska and produces a layer of a slippery algae-like substance over the bed of a stream, making it impossible for other aquatic species to survive. Ask fishermen in other states about their experiences with these diseases and you will come away with a new respect for the potential damage.

We are fortunate to have what is probably the best wild trout fishing in the world. Do we want to risk any of our waters?

Legislatures and other regulatory bodies have been thoroughly vetting the issue for some time. I have read that Idaho, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont have adopted laws, which in one way or another banned felt soles. New Zealand banned felt soles several years ago.

The argument that felt soles are safer has some merit. However, industry has been coming up with new non-felt soles that are almost as good as felt when it comes to traction and safety. And when used with the new metal star clusters that can be screwed to the bottom, they can be equal to felt and, in my experience, sometimes even better. Yes, these metal pieces can do damage when they come into contact with airplane floors and boats. However, with care, the damage can be prevented, and industry has developed Croc-like rubber over-slippers that can easily be used to prevent contact of the metal with other surfaces.

Mr. Zivanich received incorrect information when he was told that AF&G employees have been exempted from the no-felt rule. The department has not exempted any employee from the requirement. If we could be certain that felt sole wading boots would religiously be dried and decontaminated each time before being used in Alaska fresh waters, then we could certainly reduce the threat and perhaps not need a ban. But that is not a reasonable expectation.

There is a cost and an inconvenience associated with the ban on felt soles. But in my opinion and the opinion of many people more informed then I, it is worth the cost and minimal inconvenience to reduce the threat of introducing these terrible invasive species into Alaska's waters.

Karl Johnstone is chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.


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