At the Bemus Point Boat Launch last Monday, Lauren Sharp approached two men as they used a trailer hooked up to a truck to haul their blue Phoenix motorboat out of the water.
“How was it out there?” asked Sharp, a watercraft steward with the Chautauqua Lake Association.
“It was beautiful,” one of the men said. “Unfortunately, our weekend at Chautauqua Lake is over.”
One of the men used a towel to dry the boat, while the other worked with Sharp to pick off plants hanging from the boat and trailer. As Sharp crouched down to look at the bottom side of the boat near the motor in the back, one of the men started to drain the boat’s live well, where fish can be stored in water until the boat gets back to shore.
“Don’t let me drown you,” the man joked, warning Sharp to avoid the water spouting out of the boat.
Within a few minutes, the men were off, and Sharp returned to her camping chair under a tree to log data she collected during her inspection of the boat and brief conversation with the men. She used her tablet to input the data into the Watercraft Inspection Steward Program Application created by the state Department of Conservation.
Sharp is one of 11 watercraft stewards employed by the CLA to survey boats entering the water from public launches on Chautauqua Lake, Cassadaga Lake and Lake Erie. Through quick inspections of motorboats, jet skis and kayaks, the program aims to stem the introduction of invasive plants to these bodies of water.
“If you get invasive species in the lake, it’s going to cost you millions to eradicate them,” said Doug Conroe, CLA’s executive director. “The program is very cost-benefit favorable.”
The program, now in its fourth year, typically runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day each summer. From the beginning of the 2019 season through the third week of July, the program has interacted with 4,749 boats from 36 different water bodies in New York and 25 other states, according to a CLA mid-season report.
CLA water stewards check boats Friday through Monday each week, typically from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., although sometimes they get to the launches a little earlier to catch the fishing crowd, Conroe said.
On Chautauqua Lake, stewards work at Celoron Park, Prendergast Point, Bemus Point, Long Point State Park and in Lakewood. There are also two stewards who work on Cassadaga Lake, and at Dunkirk Harbor on Lake Erie.
The New York Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management also checks boats entering the water at Bemus Point and Prendergast Point.
“We have a lot of boaters that jump from Lake Erie to Cassadaga Lake to Chautauqua Lake, sometimes in the same day, not to mention hundreds of other lakes,” said Heather Nolan, who runs the program and serves as CLA’s manager of finance and community relations. “The possibility of spread is real.”
For each watercraft the stewards encounter, they classify its type, why the boat is going onto the lake (for fishing or recreational reasons), the last water body the boat was in and where it is headed next.
The mid-season report indicated that 76.5% of the watercrafts recorded are motorized, and that 57% of the boats were operated by fishermen.
“There is much more kayak usage than any of us imagined would be the case,” Conroe said. “It’s helping us understand how (Chautauqua) Lake is being used. People always said this is a great fishing lake. As we ask people why they’re here, we see a huge importance of fishing at this lake.”
Sharp said beyond collecting data on the lakes, she and the other stewards help to guide people in responsible boating practices to reduce the spread of invasive plant species from one lake to another.
“It’s important because it gives boaters awareness,” Sharp said. “A lot of people know they need to clean, drain and dry, but the boat stewards help to remind them. It gives us a lot of data for tracking how busy the launches are, and which weeds we find.”
They are especially on the lookout for water chestnut and water thyme, Sharp said.
Boat stewards are active at 211 locations across the state. Last year, more than 140,000 boats were inspected.
In 2017, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that $2 million in funding would be available for municipalities and nonprofit organizations for programs that would control invasive species both in water and on land.
This year, the CLA received its second $100,000 grant to be used over three years to fund the program. They are required to put up a 25% matching contribution. For the first three years of the program, CLA matched the money itself. This year, CLA received help from a Chautauqua County occupancy tax, Conroe said.
The CLA also runs the mechanical weed harvesting operation on Chautauqua Lake to keep plants at bay in recreational areas. The invasive species of Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed are especially rampant in the lake; this year, more than 400 acres of the lake were treated with herbicides.
The vast majority of the boaters are receptive to the inquiries of the watercraft stewards, Conroe said.
“The acceptance is phenomenal,” he said. “People want to do the right thing. They just need to know what the right thing is if they don’t already know it.”
Ezekiel Olson, a Bemus Point resident who just graduated high school, has worked as a boat steward this summer. He was staffing the Long Point State Park launch last Monday morning.
“I was interested (in the job) because I love trying to help out the environment in any way I can,” he said.
Olson grew up swimming in and doing water sports, like wakeboarding, on the lake, and said he is glad he can work to protect a resource that has been such an important presence in his life.
“It’s my home,” he said.