Disease threat slows transport of fish, bait

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

St. Paul — A ban imposed by the USDA on the importation of
several fish species from a number of Great Lakes has left several
aquaculture farmers in limbo, and could change the way state
agencies screen for a deadly disease known as VHS.

A week ago, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service issued an emergency order prohibiting the importation of
certain species of live fish from two Canadian provinces into the
United States, and the interstate movement of the same species from
the eight states bordering the Great Lakes, due to outbreaks of
viral hemorrhagic septicemia.

No outbreaks have been reported in Minnesota waters of Lake
Superior or elsewhere, but dead and diseased fish have been
reported in lakes Ontario, St. Clair, and Erie, as well as the St.
Lawrence River.

Still, VHS is a legitimate threat in Minnesota – as much as
other exotic species threats, according to Ron Payer, the Minnesota
DNR’s Fisheries Section chief. “It’s a nasty disease that can cause
high rates of mortality,” he said. Now, Payer said, Minnesota is
cooperating with other Great Lakes states in watching for spread of
the disease, which produces clinical signs in fish, including
internal hemorrhaging and death.

While uncertain how the disease entered the Great Lakes system,
most biologists believe it came via the ballast waters of
ocean-going vessels – much the same way other “exotics” entered the
freshwater basins.

According to APHIS, the ban – which took effect, without
warning, on Oct. 24, and affects the states of Minnesota,
Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York,
and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec – “is in response to the
rapid spread of VHS in the Great Lakes region, and the potential
impact on a growing number of fish species.”

Fish exports, as well as state agencies, questioned the
suddenness of the APHIS action.

Jim Rogers, a spokesman for APHIS in Washington, said fish
die-offs this summer, and new research indicating VHS could affect
far more fish species than originally though, prompted the fast
action.

But, he added: “Our job is to protect the market, not close them
down.”

Still, many trucks loaded and ready to transport fish across
state lines were forced to a grinding halt. Fish-rearers in
Minnesota already were estimating losses should the ban not be
lifted, or at least, modified.

Payer said the ban likely wouldn’t have great impact on the
state’s bait industry, because most of the “major” species of
baitfish aren’t on the prohibited list.

“But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some effect,” he said.
“And it could affect the walleye and muskie export business.”

Walleyes, especially, are shipped from Minnesota rearing
locations to other states. Many of those fish are delivered at this
time of year, as rearing ponds are cleared out just prior to winter
– the same way state DNR ponds are emptied of walleye
fingerlings.

That’s why, Payer said, the DNR questioned APHIS on the timing
of the announcement.

“Minnesota has raised several issues,” he said. Included among
them was why the state hasn’t been kept informed of pending action
by the federal agency, and why the state’s involvement has been
minimal.

In fact, Payer said, a representative from the Minnesota DNR
wasn’t initially requested to attend Wednesday’s meeting in
Washington, where APHIS was gathering comments from government
agencies and industry officials to determine a potential course of
action.

“This was a federal order, not a change in the regulation,”
Rogers said. “It just stops things. We want to determine how to get
fish moving again without threatening other fish.”

An interim rule is possible, but often that takes a matter of
weeks – something that wouldn’t do aquaculture owners in Minnesota
much good in December, when ponds are frozen over.

VHS first was detected in the Great Lakes region in 2005, and
was subsequently detected in an archived 2003 sample from Lake St.
Clair. The disease was detected in Lake St. Clair in 2005, and in
Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Lawrence River
in 2006.

Bob Haas, a Michigan DNR research biologist for Lake St. Claire,
said most of the die-off there included freshwater drum, perch,
panfish, and some muskellunge. Some of the muskies, Haas said, died
from a disease other than VHS. Some of the Lake St. Clair (east of
Detroit) fish died beneath the ice of last winter, and were too
decomposed to be tested, Haas said.

“It wasn’t a huge die-off,” Haas said. He said it was confined
to canal areas and other places with slow-moving water.

Payer said the DNR questioned the state’s inclusion in the
export ban, considering its current VHS-free status. Minnesota
waters connect to other states to the south, too, he reasoned.
Further, rearing ponds in western Minnesota, for example, have no
connection to the Great Lakes.

Rogers said in the past, APHIS, when localizing disease threats,
has set up zones, something that potentially could be done to
shield part of Minnesota’s aquaculture industry. But it would be
hard to prove the fish origin, Rogers said.

Minnesota was included because the order includes every state in
the Great Lakes watershed, “just because they’re in the watershed,”
Rogers said.

A representative of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association said
the emergency order could be devastating for walleye raisers; they
could be faced with feeding fish for another year – and then
selling them at an undesirable size. Greg Oswald, the association’s
president, was unavailable for comment at Outdoor News press time,
as he was in Washington attending the APHIS meeting.

Payer said VHS originally was thought to affect only trout and
salmon species. The list of affected fish has expanded to include
such popular species as walleyes, muskellunge, some sunfish, black
crappies, largemouth bass, rock bass, smallmouth bass, yellow
perch, grayling, northern pike, and many others.

While the chance exists that VHS could spread into Lake
Superior, Payer said the department will continue to screen fish
entering the Great Lakes system – a preventative measure.

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