Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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Samples tested in Erie drum die-off

By Mike

Sandusky, Ohio — It could be early July before a cause is
identified for thousands of freshwater drum dead or dying in Lake
Erie’s western basin.

And even then Ohio biologists may not be able to exactly
pinpoint a causal factor for the event, said Gary Isbell, fisheries
administrator for the DNR Division of Wildlife.

“With these big natural events, it’s hard to determine a cause,”
Isbell said. “It’s not a pollution event. It appears to be
something related to disease.”

The large die-off of drum, known more commonly as sheephead,
appears to be concentrated in the western portion of the lake, in
Sandusky Bay, and as far east as Vermillion. Dead fish numbering in
the thousands are washing up on beaches in Catawba island State
Park, Cranberry Creek Marina, and other points along the lakeshore
in northwest Ohio.

“It’s a very large event,” said Travis Hartman, a fisheries
biologist at the Division of Wildlife’s Sandusky research station.
“It’s been reported from Toledo to as far east as Vermillion. … If
you go into the marinas, you’ll see drum tails spinning at the
surface as they’re trying to swim back down.”

Samples of recently dead fish were sent to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service in La Crosse, Wis., for testing.

“We ruled out toxic algae and it’s not an oxygen issue,” said
Isbell. “The reality is that these things live in a soup of
bacteria and viruses. It’s just a matter of which one’s going to
kill them.”

The fish kill appears to have affected only drum in Ohio’s
portion of Lake Erie. Some dead smallmouth bass, walleye, and perch
have also washed ashore, said Hartman, but that’s likely due to
normal spawning stress and unrelated to the problems seen in the
drum population.

If it is indeed a viral problem affecting drum, ballast
discharge from foreign ships on the Great Lakes could be a
potential culprit. But, that would be hard to prove, said

“The only way we would be able to determine that is if (the
virus) is something very rare that we could tie to some waterway
that these freighters come from,” he said. “As much as we’d like to
tell you what caused it and how to correct it, the bottom line is
that this is a big system so it takes some time to figure out
what’s going on.”

It is widely believed in the biological community that the
invasive round goby that is common today in Lake Erie waters found
its way here several years ago through the ballast discharge from
foreign ships. Gobies prey especially hard on the eggs of the
lake’s smallmouth bass, leading the DNR Division of Wildlife
several years ago to close the spring smallmouth season to harvest
(Ohio Outdoor News, May 12).

Recently, large numbers of dead fish have also been discovered
in southeast Michigan, including the Detroit River where dead carp,
drum, and muskellunge have turned up, according to the Detroit Free
Press. Michigan anglers have reported large numbers of dead
muskellunge, many four feet or longer, the newspaper reported.
Hartman said that die off has been attributed to a bacterial
disease and is not related to the malady affecting drum.

The suspected viral die-off has not been reported in walleye,
yellow perch, or smallmouth bass — the big three game fish in Lake
Erie – in neither Ohio nor Michigan.

But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t concern among fisheries
biologists. Sheephead too often get a bad rap from the fishing
public, said Roger Knight, the Lake Erie program administrator for
the DNR Division of Wildlife.

“There’s avid people who target species and to them drum are a
nuisance,” he said. “But, for people who aren’t targeting species
and just want to catch fish, it’s a nice animal to have out

“I’d rather catch a drum than catch nothing at all,” Knight
said. “For people who aren’t avid types who want to just go relax
and catch fish, there’s nothing wrong with it. I think it’s an
important part of the community up here.”

The prevailing perception of sheephead is that they’re rough
fish that aren’t good for much of anything and they can often be
found lining trash bins along the shore. In too many cases,
perception becomes reality, Knight said.

“Let’s face it, if people weren’t educating others that these
fish are ‘bad’ then we wouldn’t come away with that perception,” he
said. “I’ve had kids on my boat and had them hook into some nice
drum that’s bigger than the perch that’s coming in. If you’re not
beating the fish over the head and talking about how bad it is,
that kid will think he’s caught a nice fish … It is what you make

Lest he be misunderstood, Knight also said that being avid after
a particular species isn’t bad, either.

“There’s times I’m after one of the three big species up here:
(largemouth) bass, smallmouth or walleye,” Knight said. “But,
there’s other times when I just want to go and take the kids out.
We’ll fish for perch and if that’s not happening we’ll find some
rocks and catch some drum. So, it fills a void if things aren’t

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