Effective Communication Helps Keep Wisconsin Lakes Some of the Best in the Midwest

Each year, Wisconsin’s lakes and streams are visited by nearly 1.3 million anglers, making the state one of the top ten for angler activity. Collectively, these anglers spend over 21 million days fishing each season. While that’s 21 million potential days to hit the lake, teach a child to fish, or reconnect with old friends, it’s also 21 million days during which aquatic hitchhikers may be catching a free ride to new waters on the over 600,000 registered watercraft in Wisconsin.

Professional anglers can use numerous techniques, such as high-pressure spraying, to remove aquatic invasive species from their boats. Photo by Jeremy Jones.
Professional anglers can use numerous techniques, such as high-pressure spraying, to remove aquatic invasive species from their boats. Photo by Jeremy Jones.

Aquatic invasive species (AIS), like zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil, are non-native species that, when introduced into novel habitats, are able to outcompete and edge out native species, often causing tremendous ecological damage in the process. One of the most common ways aquatic invasives jump from lake to lake is by “hitchhiking” on boats and other watercraft, or by hanging out in live wells and bait buckets.

According to recent studies, Wisconsin anglers are among the most proactive when it comes to AIS, being nearly 25 percent more likely than boaters in neighboring states to check for and thoroughly remove any “hitchhikers.”

Effective communication and campaigns like “Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers!” have played a key role in the successes already seen in the fight to stop AIS, and ongoing research by Department of Life Sciences Communication associate professor and environmental communication specialist for UW-Extension Bret Shaw is giving the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) some critical ammunition.

Building upon his previous studies on anglers’ levels of awareness and concern regarding AIS, Shaw and colleagues worked to identify where anglers might be getting their information, and how various methods of communication, such as brochures and signs or via “opinion leaders,” may play a critical role in educating anglers and helping to stop AIS in their watery tracks.

Shaw’s research focused primarily on two main groups identified as potential opinion leaders, or respected sources of information within the fishing community: bait vendors and fishing tournament organizers.

“[These groups] are important partners in helping spread the word about aquatic invasive species to anglers and boaters because they are the people who interact with these audiences on a daily basis and have witnessed the damage AIS can cause to the fishing industry,” Shaw said.

A combination of informal interviews and observations of customer interactions, as well as two quantitative surveys, were used to gather data on the understanding, concern, and actions of 141 bait vendors and/or business owners and 70 tournament organizers, as well as their opinions on the awareness levels among their clientele.

According to the study, over two-thirds of bait vendors reported that they were aware of aquatic invasive species and just under two-thirds voiced concerns about the presence of species like zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil in Wisconsin lakes. Among bait vendors that considered themselves somewhat familiar with the damages AIS can cause, only about 45 percent considered themselves knowledgeable regarding the specifics of how aquatic invasive are spread. Bait shop owners had less confidence in their customers’ level of understanding, with only 14 percent reporting that they felt their customers also had a good understanding of how AIS are spread.

Among fishing tournament organizers and participants, both awareness and perceived knowledge were much higher. Nearly 100 percent of tournament organizers had heard of AIS before, and they considered their tournament participants to be one of the most knowledgeable and proactive groups of lake-users.

Despite that confidence, many admitted that uncertainty about the exact ways AIS can and can’t be spread may cause some anglers to be less likely to take some preventative steps. It seemed that some anglers did not perceive that prevention methods like removing debris from watercraft and emptying all live wells and bait buckets would have the intended effects of preventing the spread of AIS because so many other boaters were already moving AIS around the state’s water bodies.

Dane County Removal Station Credit Tim Campbell
Removal stations like this in Dane County show anglers best practices for helping stop the spread of aquatic invasive species. Photo by Tim Campbell.

Overall, Shaw and his team found that both bait shop owners and tournament organizers are important partners for disseminating AIS information and have the potential to positively influence large numbers of lake-users. Perhaps most importantly, the study found that the majority of these opinion leaders acknowledge and embrace the role they play in helping stop the spread of invasive species. A number of bait shop owners even suggested ways to most effectively communicate AIS information, as well as outreach models they themselves would be most likely to participate in, such as putting up signs or handing out publications.

Following the conclusion of the study, Shaw’s team launched a full scale campaign and evaluation of various communication methods focused on encouraging positive behavioral changes, utilizing bait shop owners and fishing tournament organizers as role models and guided by the input from the study participants. Importantly, the evaluation indicated that Wisconsin boaters’ were more likely to adopt some of the key prevention behaviors following the campaign.

“Protecting Wisconsin’s natural resources is a shared responsibility,” Shaw said. “We are fortunate that many bait businesses and other partners are doing their part to make a difference.”

Story by Gina Lehner, Department of Life Sciences Communication 2015-16 Lenore Landry Scholar