Virus puts strain on Ohio fishing
Written by The Plain Dealer   
Monday, 19 March 2007 10:48

A deadly virus has changed the way Ohioans will fish this year.A federal ban on the moving of live fish across Great Lakes state and province lines aims to stop the spread of VHS, or viral hemorrhagic septicemia, from the lower Great Lakes.

In an attempt to confine VHS to the lower Great Lakes, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the ban on interstate shipments of 37 species of live fish. The species range from emerald shiner minnows to trout, walleye, bass, yellow perch and catfish. First-time offenders could face a maximum fine of $1,000. First-time violations by businesses could draw a maximum fine of $250,000 per violation.

The new rules, however, are expected to increase the price of baitfish and bring problems for fish farmers, fishing tournaments and sport fishermen who want to fish outside Ohio waters.

The ban has prevented shipments to Ohio of emerald shiner minnows, a mainstay for area bait stores servicing Lake Erie yellow perch fishermen. Fish farmers now have expensive and time-consuming hoops to jump through if they want to ship live fish between the Great Lakes states. Ohio's popular steelhead trout program, which relies on fish eggs collected in Michigan waters, could be in peril.

The virus is deadly to Great Lakes fish, but not the people who catch and eat fish. There have been no cases of VHS making the jump from fish to humans.

Experts say the strict rules are probably too late.

"It is likely VHS has already spread throughout the Great Lakes," said Fred Snyder, an Ohio Sea Grant agent stationed in Port Clinton. "It appears that when we look for VHS, we find it."

Last spring, tens of thousands of dead and dying freshwater drum, or sheepshead, stricken with VHS, littered the Ohio shoreline of western Lake Erie. Lesser numbers of yellow perch washed ashore in central Lake Erie. Thousands of muskies died of VHS in early 2006 in Lake St. Clair, and the last two years VHS-driven fish kills have become common around Lake Ontario.

The virus is most deadly in cold water. As Lake Erie and other Great Lakes waters warmed late last spring, the fish kills stopped.

The virus most likely arrived in the Great Lakes in the ballast of an ocean freighter, joining a list of 182 invasive species from Europe and around the world now plaguing the Great Lakes.

Still, little has been done to treat or manage ballast water to prevent another strain of VHS from arriving in the Great Lakes. Records show a new invasive species arrives in the Great Lakes about every eight months.

Ohio is not willing to enforce the ban, even though New York and Pennsylvania are expanding it. New York won't allow live fish to be collected in its Lake Erie watershed. Pennsylvania has an emergency order preventing fish from being transported away from the Lake Erie watershed and plans to add 90 more species of fish to the list.

"We've told [the government] it is not our statutory responsibility to enforce the federal order," said Ray Petering, head of fisheries for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. "The real problem is ballast water, not VHS. We are sick and tired of trying to put on Band-Aids while federal officials ignore the ballast water issue.

"This virus is going to run its course in the Great Lakes," said Petering. "It will kill some fish, while the majority will develop a natural resistance to it. It is a far more serious problem for aquaculturists, whose fish are in crowded, more stressful conditions."

In Europe and Japan, VHS has killed trout and salmon for decades. The virus has been a major problem for European aquaculturists raising rainbow trout and other freshwater fish, because the virus spreads quickly in crowded hatcheries. The Type 4-B version attacking the Great Lakes is a new, less deadly strain.

The ban hits fishing tournaments - which feature catch-and-release fishing - hard. Although the fish naturally swim across state lines, the ban prohibits Lake Erie tournament fishermen from catching smallmouth bass or walleye from outside Ohio waters and bringing the live fish to an Ohio-based weigh-in.

The ban also forbids Lake Erie sport fishermen from slipping across the Ohio line to catch walleye and smallmouth bass in Ontario waters and bringing back their catch, unless they kill the fish, said inspection service spokeswoman Karen Eggert.

The federal order won't affect the national Wal-Mart FLW Walleye Tour Championship in Cleveland on Sept. 27-30, said tournament director Sonny Reynolds, but the tournament might restrict anglers to Ohio waters.

A handful of Ohio bait dealers catch emerald shiner minnows from Lake Erie in spring and fall. In summertime, the minnows move offshore, requiring bait shops to import thousands of gallons of the popular baitfish. Now, the only way to legally ship the minnows across state or provincial borders is to quarantine them and have them certified as VHS-free. Bait dealers say that system is too costly and unworkable with fragile shiner minnows that live only a few days in captivity. Shiner minnows previously cost $1 to $1.50 per dozen. Under the ban, those prices could double.

"When we're out of emerald shiners, we'll have golden shiners and fathead minnows available, but they'll be more expensive," said Mike Fedorka at Shine's Live Bait in Cleveland. Fedorka's shop is one of the few that gathers emerald shiner minnows when they are available. 
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