Bait dealers readying for effects of VHS regs

By Yvonne Swager

Correspondent

Lansing – Upcoming state regulations aimed at controlling the
spread of viral hemorrhagic septicemia in fish won’t eradicate the
disease – but may hinder some live bait wholesalers.

A federal order restricting interstate movement of fish issued
in November already has hampered some sales and tournament
activity, and state regulations currently are being negotiated that
may restrict movement of fish within Michigan as well.

‘The state has been good about keeping business rolling, but
that’s going to come to an end,’ said Tom Knutson, of Knutson’s
Live Bait in Jackson County. ‘Michigan officials have been really
lax on this. The feds will come down on them, and all the shiners
will have to be brought in from other states.’

According to Knutson, the state allowed emerald shiners to move
all winter because the fish were already in ponds when the federal
order was issued. He said complying with the federal order, in
addition to new restrictions that may be imposed by the state, may
cripple some live bait operations.

‘It’s big business on the lakeshore. I know 20 people who make a
living at it and will probably be out of jobs,’ Knutson said.

The federal order allows for movement of fish within the state
but requires documentation of VHS testing on interstate transfer.
Similar requirements within the state would stop business for those
who catch wild emerald shiners, because the shelf-life for that
species is a matter of days and testing results take weeks, Knutson
said.

Knutson said he believes not much can be done to stop the spread
of VHS. The progress can be delayed, but the disease may have been
around longer than suspected.

‘It’s probably been around for a long time. We, as humans, are
getting better at finding things,’ he said.

Rick Weidenhamer, co-owner of Michigan Wholesale Bait, was born
into and raised in the bait business. He said at least 90 percent
of his winter business is shiners.

‘If the state restricts the catching of minnows, my company will
probably go out of business,’ Weidenhamer said.

His biggest concern is whether the issue of VHS is being blown
out of proportion.

‘I think this whole issue got snowballed. We cannot overreact.
We’re seeing bumper crops of minnows and perch,’ he said. ‘They’re
trying to regulate something that they can’t control. Once it’s
here, it’s here. There’s nothing man’s going to do. Mother Nature
will weed herself out.’

Restricting live-catch bait would increase the cost of bait four
or five times, Weidenhamer said, and would deter fishermen from
coming to Michigan, affecting the state financially. He estimates
every five dollars spent on bait accompanies $40 in snacks, in
addition to money spent for restaurants, motels, equipment
purchases, and fuel.

‘Even gas stations have to hire extra help during the fishing
season. Restrictions would devastate everything north of the
Mackinac Bridge. They don’t have many factories,’ Weidenhamer said.
‘If you think TB was a problem, that was nothing. There are many
more fishermen than hunters. We’re not talking chump change.’

Weidenhamer indicated he’d like to see any future regulations
target specific watersheds as opposed to blanket rulings that
affect the entire state.

There are no concerns with respect to human health, but the
World Organization for Animal Health has categorized VHS as a
transmissible disease with the potential for profound
socio-economic consequences.

First discovered in the mid-20th century in Europe, VHS was a
significant and costly disease of cultured rainbow trout. Mortality
occurs when hemorrhaging reduces the oxygen carrying ability of the
blood, and organs fail.

The disease affects fish on three levels: acute, chronic, and
nervous. The syndromes can overlap, and clinical signs include
hemorrhaging of the gills, eyes, and body surface, as well as
anemia, protruding eyes, and accumulation of fluid in the abdomen.
Fish with VHS may become twisted and swim in circles on their
sides.

Since the initial discovery, four strains of VHS have been
identified. In 2005, a large die-off of freshwater drum in Lake
Ontario and a muskie kill in Lake St. Clair both were linked to
VHS. Subsequent testing of a muskie collected from Lake St. Clair
indicated the virus had been present and undetected in the Great
Lakes system for at least two years.

Additional fish kills in 2006 have prompted the Michigan DNR to
suspend hatchery production of walleyes, northern pike, and muskies
for one year while methods are developed to allow production and
stocking without bringing additional risk of infection to
hatcheries and waterways.

Though fish kills are alarming, not all recent fish kills are
linked to VHS. The disease usually attacks in the spring when
temperatures are optimum, while kills that occur in the fall are
more indicative of other sources, such as botulism.

‘The Great Lakes strain is less virulent than the European
strain,’ Dr. Rochelle Sturtevant, extension agent for the Great
Lakes Sea Grant, said at a recent fisheries workshop. ‘It has been
documented in warm-water species unlike the parent virus.’

According to Sturtevant, the disease is believed to have come
from the East Coast, but the Great Lakes strain is a new
mutation.

‘It is most likely transmitted through urine and sex products.
It can survive 14 days outside of the host fish,’ she said.
‘Chronic sufferers or carriers may show no symptoms.’

Though the exact means of the arrival of the virus in the Great
Lakes is unknown, the DNR suspects the likely origin to be the
maritime provinces of Canada. That, coupled with the distribution,
indicates ballast water discharge in the shipping industry as a
likely vector.

If ballast water is the culprit, Gary Whelan, DNR fish
production manager, expects the VHS situation rapidly will change.
Fish have tested positive for VHS in Lake Huron as far as the
Cheboygan area, but Whelan anticipates high ballast exchange in
Duluth Harbor in western Lake Superior as well as Chicago will
shuttle the disease to those areas very soon.

‘If it’s ballast water, then I would expect the disease to show
up in those areas in the next two years,’ Whelan said. ‘It will be
a little slower if it’s being transferred by fish movement. If it’s
fish movement, it will probably take about a decade to reach Duluth
because of the Soo Locks.’

The disease attacks young fish before the immune system is in
place, he said, and is going to kill weak and susceptible fish.

‘It appears some fish can survive the initial attack,’ Whelan
said.

While small businesses await pending regulation by the state
regarding what restrictions will be enforced on intrastate
transfer, Whelan said he is hoping for some changes to the federal
order as it becomes finely tuned.

‘They’re operating on political boundaries. Michigan is
considered positive for VHS, but not all water is affected,’ he
said.

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