By Kevin Naze
Sturgeon Bay, Wis. – Wisconsin’s ongoing struggle with viral
hemorrhagic septicemia – the fish-killing VHS virus – was a big
newsmaker at the Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s 52nd annual
meeting June 5-6 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
‘Most of the attention’s on us right now,’ said Mike Staggs, DNR
fisheries supervisor in Madison.
Wisconsin found itself in the national spotlight when VHS was
confirmed in the Lake Winnebago system last month. Since then,
preliminary positive lab tests have come back from a dead Lake
Michigan brown trout found at Algoma, a sampling of healthy-looking
smallmouth bass in Little Sturgeon Bay, and three commercially
caught Door County whitefish that appeared infected.
Other samples of suspect and routine-sampling fish were pending,
most of them from the Great Lakes waters.
Even though there’s no proof that VHS has infiltrated Wisconsin
hatcheries, it’s possible that state and federal officials might
recommend killing some of the fish there.
‘Short of not stocking, there’s no way we can do this that’s
totally risk-free,’ Staggs said.
The reason for the concern is two-fold: First, sauger from Lake
Winnebago, and walleyes and northern pike from Lake Puckaway, were
used as brood stock before the DNR had VHS on its inland lake radar
this spring; and second, most of the state’s hatcheries use water
from other inland or Great Lakes waters.
‘The ones that have wells or on-site springs are obviously the
most secure,’ Staggs said. ‘Those include Wild Rose, Nevin, Kettle
Moraine Springs, and St. Croix Falls.’
However, two of those four – Wild Rose and Kettle Moraine
Springs, along with Lake Mills – were quarantined by the Department
of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) after the
discovery of VHS in inland waters because all three had received
eggs from potentially infected fish.
‘I’m definitely hopeful that everything will be fine,’ Staggs
said. ‘The bottom line is it’s millions of dollars and could be a
lot of fish, but we definitely don’t want to spread VHS.’
The state’s 13 hatcheries typically produce between 10 and 15
million fish fry, fingerlings, and yearlings for annual stocking
into the Great Lakes and inland waters.
Charlie Henriksen, of Baileys Harbor, president of the Wisconsin
Commercial Fisheries Association, said he was concerned. He said
northern Door County netters already are struggling with high taxes
on waterfront property and rising costs of fuel and insurance.
‘We don’t know if we’re looking at isolated spots or a total
problem everywhere,’ Henriksen said. ‘With chubs being down, if
whitefish take a dive, we’re going to be looking for disaster
Lake Michigan whitefish are the county’s top commercially caught
species. The four most active family businesses on the Door
Peninsula hold multiple licenses and have combined to land more
than 1 million pounds of whitefish 13 of the past 17 years, fishing
mainly from Chambers Island on the bay side around the tip and down
to Whitefish Bay. The fish are sold in, or shipped to, markets and
restaurants throughout the country.
DNR lakeshore fisheries supervisor Paul Peeters, of Sturgeon
Bay, said the suspect whitefish were turned in by a commercial
fisherman last month.
‘But I have no reason to believe this is going to be
catastrophic to the whitefish population,’ Peeters said. ‘And this
is not a human health issue. VHS is strictly a disease of
Al Blizel, the DNR’s commercial and charter fishing program
specialist in Sturgeon Bay, said everything he’s heard and read
about VHS has been that it has not devastated any fisheries.
‘I think of it this way: It’s like a flu. Does everybody die?
No. Only a few. That’s what I think VHS might be like. Maybe it’ll
just take the old, sick, and weak,’ Blizel said.
Peeters stressed the need for education, so anglers and boaters
don’t spread the virus to inland waters where it could be even more
Hatcheries on hold
There was some good news. The DNR learned June 6 that DATCP
cleared the way for fisheries officials to stock the 150,000 or so
chinook fingerlings in Sturgeon Bay’s Strawberry Creek and the
350,000 or so destined for the Southeast Region that were being
held at the Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery.
Hatchery supervisor Steve Fajfer said the rest of the fish are
still under DATCP quarantine. Wild Rose, Kettle Moraine Springs,
and Lake Mills state fish hatcheries were quarantined by DATCP last
month after VHS was discovered in the Winnebago system. The
hatcheries had received eggs from Lake Puckaway northern pike and
walleye brood stock, and Lake Winnebago sauger. VHS testing is
‘So far the fish have seemed really good,’ Fajfer said. ‘We
haven’t seen any external signs of VHS and no unusual die-offs, but
no one wants to make a wrong decision and jeopardize any
DATCP and DNR were at Wild Rose on May 30 sampling 3-inch
fingerling pike raised from Puckaway brood stock. ‘Clean’ tests
take 28 days, so it’s likely that if there are no problems, by the
end of June there’s the potential for stocking to resume.
Fajfer said hatchery crews stocked about 300,000 brown trout and
221,000 chinooks – and transferred hundreds of thousands more
chinooks to holding ponds at Kewaunee and Manitowoc – before the
stocking freeze order last month. Those fish have all been
Most of the rest of the fish at Wild Rose would normally be held
for fall or spring 2008 stockings, Fajfer said, though there are
about 20,000 to 25,000 pike fingerlings destined for three lakes
and about 93,000 brown trout fingerlings that were to be
transferred to the Langlade hatchery.
About 650,000 Wild Rose and Seeforellen-strain brown trout,
20,000 large northern pike fingerlings, 25,000 fingerling and 1,000
yearling lake sturgeon, and 1,000-plus yearling spotted muskies are
among the other fish currently being held there.
Randy Link, supervisor at Kettle Moraine Springs, said close to
400,000 Skamania, Chambers Creek, and Ganaraska steelhead were
stocked in Lake Michigan streams prior to the freeze. About 600,000
fry and small fingerlings are being held for stocking next spring,
and some near-shore strains of rainbow trout were either stocked or
transferred to other hatcheries for rearing.
There also are about 20,000 to 30,000 small walleye fingerlings
from Lake Delevan-strain brood stock and an unknown number of tiny
sauger fry from Lake Winnebago.
‘They’re so small we won’t know if they’ve survived for a week
or so yet,’ Link said June 6. ‘As soon as we can find them, I’m
sure they’ll test them. If we don’t find any, we would probably
drain the pond and sun-dry it.’
Steve Merson, the newly named hatchery supervisor at Lake Mills,
said all of the fish there are still being held. The list includes
about 460,000 cohos, some of which would normally be transferred to
DNR rearing sites adjacent to Lake Michigan in June. Others are
held and are typically stocked as fall fingerlings or spring
About 80,000 pike from Puckaway brood stock would have been
stocked by now, and about a half-million walleye fingerlings would
normally be gone by mid-June. One pond of them, about 50,000, is
from Puckaway stock.
With the DNR not bringing in any minnows to hatcheries right now
because of VHS, pike are being fed pellets in some areas, or are
eating whatever baitfish were purchased or raised before the
emergency rules took effect. Merson said more pike are trying to
eat each other now.
Staggs said the DNR is looking at proposing permanent rules in
time for the Natural Resources Board meeting June 27. Public
hearings would be held across the state in August. Those hearings
are not to be confused with one planned next month in Madison on
the emergency rules.
‘We’re moving into what we’re going to do for the long-term –
how we’re going to modify our hatcheries and where we’re going for
2008,’ Staggs said.
He said New York officials he talked to in Sault Ste. Marie were
concerned about VHS, even though they’ve only seen die-offs of
gizzard shad and round gobies this year.