Some fish stocking suspended for 2007

By Yvonne Swager

Correspondent

Lansing – Michigan DNR walleye, pike, and muskie production and
stocking has been suspended for a year because of a fatal fish
disease. The presence of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS),
detected in the Great Lakes in 2005, has prompted the DNR to take
steps to restrict spread of the disease.

Although many options were explored, including internal facility
isolation, off-site rearing, and new sources for eggs and fish,
Gary Whelan, production manager for the DNR Fisheries Division,
said stopping production and stocking was the safest way to guard
against spread of the disease by DNR activity.

‘We’re not going to take the risk of bringing in the virus.
We’re trying to protect the hatcheries and the lakes,’ Whelan told
Michigan Outdoor News.

VHS, which poses no risk to humans, causes internal and external
hemorrhaging in fish. Attacked organs fail, especially the kidneys.
It was thought to be only a concern for fish raised for commercial
aquaculture in Europe. But the disease has now been detected in
Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake St. Clair, and is suspected in
recent fish kills in Lake Huron.

‘It kills relatively quickly. We’ve never found it in fresh
water to be causing mortalities like we’ve seen here,’ Whelan said.
‘It hasn’t diverged very much, so it’s relatively new. If Lake
Huron isn’t infected already, it will be pretty soon.’

Egg and fish sources for walleyes, northern pike, and muskies
are located in waters thought to be high-probability areas for VHS.
The disease is thought to have entered Michigan waters in ballast
water discharged from freighters.

‘There is a lot of boat traffic from Lake St. Clair, Saginaw
Bay, and Lake Michigan,’ Whelan said. ‘It’s a risk we can’t take at
this time.’

DNR stocking of walleyes, pike, and muskies has taken place
since the 1880s. The one-year moratorium means 5 to 10 million
walleye spring fingerlings, 10 to 15 million walleye fry, 100,000
to 500,000 pike fry, and 10,000 to 40,000 muskie fingerlings won’t
be making it into Michigan waters this year.

‘You’ll see some lakes will show a reduction in fish available
to anglers in about three years,’ Whelan said.

A slight fish shortage is a small price to pay in comparison to
the cost associated with infecting the Thompson and Wolf Lake state
fish hatcheries, officials say. Rearing VHS-infected walleyes,
muskies, and northern pike at those two facilities would put at
risk all of the state’s production of steelhead and 40 percent of
the salmon, as well as other species.

‘We would have to disinfect the whole facility. There would be
an $80 to $160 million loss if we had to destroy all the fish in
those hatcheries,’ Whelan said.

Though the suspended stocking may seem drastic, Whelan predicts
one year is all that will be necessary to develop methods for
rearing walleyes, pike, and muskies that won’t jeopardize the
safety of hatcheries or bodies of water.

‘We aren’t anticipating it will be a sustained problem,’ he
said. ‘We think it’s an excellent probability there will be a
shorter moratorium next year and a good probability there will be
no moratorium.’

The halt in production and stocking is a localized attempt at
controlling a problem recognized by the federal government in 2006.
A federal order issued in October halted movement of live fish
across state lines in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New
York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and movement into the
United States from Ontario and Quebec to reduce the spread of VHS.
The order was revised and issued again in November.

‘We realized there are a lot of businesses that depend on the
ability to cross state lines, so we amended the order to allow that
transfer in a safe manner that won’t spread the disease,’ said
Karen Eggert, spokesperson for the USDA Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service (APHIS).

According to Eggert, the order was a response to an emerging
animal disease issue in the Great Lakes region. She said the
organization has been listening to concerns and will take them into
consideration along with national issues in developing interim and
final rulings regarding the transfer of live fish.

The final ruling will take time to finely tune and push through
clearance steps, and Eggert said. Unlike the temporary state
moratorium on stocking, it will remain in place.

‘It is a top priority for the agency. We don’t anticipate VHS
will go away or be eradicated completely, and we don’t foresee
pulling the final ruling out,’ she said.

That federal ruling is cause for discussion among fishermen who
will have to comply for the first time during upcoming tournaments
this spring and summer. Capt. Bob Devine, a fishing guide from
Windsor, Ontario, fishes regularly in tournaments near Detroit and
said many will be inconvenienced by the order and don’t understand
the logic.

‘We’re not allowed to bring minnows or anything into Michigan
waters. Currently, anglers on the U.S. side will be limited to
their state. It’s going to limit where guys are running,’ Devine
said.

Fishermen are accustomed to listening to the radio to find where
fish are hitting, then taking off to those locations, Devine said.
Now, they will have to be careful regarding boundaries.

‘It will affect most of the fishermen. A number of guys I fished
with last year were fishing on the Canadian side because the fish
are bigger there,’ Devine said. ‘I was told that the winning
weights last year were from Canadian waters.’

According to Devine, many anglers maintain the federal ruling
will be ineffective, because the fish themselves are free to swim
the waters.

‘A lot of guys have said government officials have jumped the
gun on this. It wasn’t well thought out,’ he said. ‘A fish doesn’t
know the border. A fish is going to go where the food is.’

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