VHS proposal will be revised by DEC

Staff report

Albany — DEC will significantly alter its proposed VHS
regulations and once again go through the regulatory process that
will include a public comment period.

In the meantime, the agency will issue new “emergency
regulations” designed to halt the spread of the fatal fish disease
– one which DEC officials stress poses no harm to humans.

“Because we’re going to change the proposed regulatory package,
and there will probably be significant changes, when the current
emergency regulations expire we would implement new emergency
regulations that will have the provisions that we plan to move
forward with,” DEC Fisheries Bureau Chief Doug Stang told the
state’s Conservation Fund Advisory Board earlier this month.

The new regulations, Stang said, would focus primarily on
overland transportation of live fish and would essentially prohibit
the transport of “non-certified disease-free” baitfish by vehicle.
In essence, anglers would be able to purchase live baitfish that’s
not certified as disease-free, but would only be able to do so at
shops directly on the water and would be limited to fishing at that
site.

“It’s very easy to enforce,” Stang said. “If he (the angler) is
traveling anywhere with live fish and doesn’t have disease-free
certification, he’s guilty. We want to have a relative white line
so they (ECOs) can enforce it.”

Anglers purchasing certified disease-free baitfish – many shops
are having their bait shipments certified as such – will be able to
carry them to different waters to fish. Anglers catching their own
baitfish for personal use will be limited to using them on the
water in which they were caught.

The new regulations were sparked by public comments during a
formal comment period, as well as 11 public meetings across the
state where DEC officials heard sportsmen and baitfish dealer
concerns.

“We received lots and lots and lots and lots of comments,” Stang
said. “Probably as much as we often get when we make changes in
(fishing) regulations. We’re in the process of reviewing and
assessing the comments we received.”

Stang said DEC officials were to meet Feb. 12 with executive
staff to discuss the revised emergency regulations which would
almost assuredly carry over into permanent regulations.

“The message most people can understand, the one that resonated,
as ‘do not move fish from one body of water to another.’ Just don’t
do it. You could be introducing new species, new diseases, anything
like that. After that, we’ve got most of it licked in terms of
invasive species and disease problems,” Stang said.

Stang admitted there’s “no fool-proof system” in establishing
regulations designed to halt the spread of VHS, which has been
found in the Great Lakes system as well as Conesus Lake and has
been responsible for several fish kills. Species affected have
ranged from emerald shiners – baitfish is seen as a major carrier
of the disease – to smallmouth bass, muskellunge and walleye.

And there will be challenges in putting the regulations in
place. For example, how to deal with waters like the Mohawk River,
which has a series of locks and dams along the Erie Barge Canal.
“We’re defining waters as ‘the water proper and all tributaries up
to the first impassable barrier,’” Stang said. “Locks and dams will
constitute impassable barriers. The Mohawk makes it a little more
difficult. Do you have eight or nine Mohawk rivers? Right now,
we’re thinking we will.”

Hudson River anglers will be able to collect herring in
tributaries for use as striped bass bait and then return to the
main river and use them, Stang added.

While the VHS situation put a bit of a financial squeeze on bait
dealers forced to certify their baitfish as disease-free, Stang
said it hasn’t, apparently, created a shortage of available
bait.

“We’re not getting any complaints from anyone that they can’t
get bait. There is certified bait out there,” he said, noting that
dealers are getting it primarily from Arkansas and other
large-scale Midwest baitfish farms.

Since VHS can be carried in dead fish, Stang said DEC officials
“are giving strong consideration for treating dead fish the same as
live fish.” That could further complicate the regulations, but is
seen as a necessary move to halt the spread of the disease, which
could pose major economic consequences to the state’s fishing
industry.

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