Superior national park heads explore VHS rules

Madison – Like their counterparts in fish management have done –
and continue to do – in battling a deadly fish disease, officials
from national parks surrounding Lake Superior are developing a plan
to deal with VHS, a disease that’s one of the most recent
“invasive” threats to the Great Lakes.

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia, which causes bleeding in internal
organs, muscles, and skin that kills several species of game fish,
has altered Great Lakes states’ fish-stocking activity, changed the
way bait dealers do business, and forced regulations on anglers who
use live bait – and even those who don’t.

Now, national parks whose Lake Superior waters border those of
the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, are compiling
their own set of options – detection, preventative measures, and
also ways to respond should VHS be found in the largest, deepest,
and coldest of the Great Lakes. They’re doing so with the
involvement of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, of northeast
Minnesota. A draft plan could be available within weeks.

“Initially, we want to go in concert with (state rules),” said
Tim Cochrane, superintendent of Grand Portage National Monument in
northern Minnesota. He said multiple jurisdictions in Lake Superior
make make the task of setting VHS strategy a complicated one, with
not only states’ involvement, but also that of the U.S. Coast
Guard, the EPA, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many other

Lake Superior parks involved in National Park Service planning
are Grand Portage, along with Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and
Isle Royale National Park (Michigan), and Apostle Islands National
Lakeshore (Wisconsin).

“The Grand Portage Band joined the effort to protect traditional
access of Ojibwe people to the species they have harvested through
time and because of their shared management at the Grand Portage
National Monument,” an NPS press release states.

Jim Northup, superintendent at Pictured Rocks near Munising,
Mich., said NPS superintendents from Lake Superior NPS sites were
charged with devising a plan to detect and respond to VHS.

“We first looked at possible vectors for VHS,” Northup said,
referring to means by which VHS could be introduced to

Heading the list were ballast discharge from oceangoing ships,
recreational and commercial boaters, and fish movement. Entities
like the NPS face various challenges when dealing with each of
those possibilities: The agency can’t directly affect shipping
practices, boater practices in many cases must be altered, and fish
move by nature.

Another challenge is coordinating a VHS strategy with other
federal and state authorities, along with officials from

“This will require an enormous amount of collaboration,” Northup
said, adding that Pictured Rocks’ interest isn’t just the
“quarter-mile sliver” of Lake Superior waters over which the park
has jurisdiction, but also several inland lakes in the region.

State rules for VHS

The states of Michigan and Wisconsin already have rules in place
that affect Lake Superior anglers. Minnesota may be in the process
of doing so, as that state’s VHS plan progresses.

Michigan has classified state waters as one of three “management
areas” – VHS free, VHS surveillance, and VHS positive. Lake
Superior currently is in the “VHS free” category. But there are
other rules regarding movement of bait around the state, Northup

Wisconsin’s Lake Superior rules regarding baitfish are the same
as they are for the rest of the state, according to Bill Horns, a
Wisconsin DNR Great Lakes fisheries specialist in Madison. That is,
live bait cannot be transported away from Lake Superior. Livewells
must be drained of water. And if live bait is caught in Lake
Superior, it may only be used in that lake. Other bait must come
from a licensed bait dealer.

Horns said Wisconsin currently has “emergency” rules in place,
but they could soon be replaced by “permanent” rules.

The emergence of VHS has affected other state activities, he

“We’ve seen a significant change in how we (the DNR) move fish
around the state,” Horns said.

State agencies also say the simplest way for anglers not to move
VHS, or other fish disease is to simply make sure all water is
drained from livewells and bilges, and that they be left to dry out
for several days, or sanitized, before the boat is put in another
water. Live fish should not be transported from one water body to
another, bait should be certified “VHS-free,” and vegetation should
be thoroughly removed from trailers and watercraft.

For more on preventative measures, visit a state DNR

A little history

According to the NPS, VHS has been in the lower Great Lakes
since 2003, and has spread each year. It’s known to affect at least
28 species of freshwater fish (including fish such as walleyes,
muskies, yellow perch, and smallmouth bass).

The disease is believed to have been around since the 1930s,
when it killed a number of farmed rainbow trout in Europe.
Officials say the Great Lakes strain is different than that of
European origin, and even that which was found to affect fish
species in the Pacific Northwest a couple decades ago.

In this part of the country, VHS has largely been confined to
the Great Lakes system, though it showed up last year in
Wisconsin’s inland Lake Winnebago system, and Budd Lake, an inland
lake in Lower Michigan. Fish kills have been confirmed in lakes
Huron, St. Clair, Erie, Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River.

Lake trout – the most frequent angler catch from Lake Superior –
aren’t currently on the federal list of susceptible species, but
there are some who believe the species should be, including Seth
Moore, fish and wildlife biologist for the Grand Portage Band.

Moore said there are a couple ways to test for VHS, one of which
isn’t yet recognized as valid by the U.S. FDA. However, that method
has found the disease in fish species outside the listed 28,
including lake trout.

“I know for a fact that lake trout do get VHS,” he said. “I
consider lake trout on the list.”

Other Lake Superior species of significance to tribal anglers
are lake whitefish and herring species (ciscoes), Moore said.

What action will the parks and band take? Moore said there are
different courses for different threats.

Regarding ballast water release, he said the plan is to be
certain agencies such as the Coast Guard, the EPA, and APHIS are
aware of the risks presented by VHS, and push for federal
legislation to address the risk.

Recent action by the state of Michigan – and proposed action by
other states regarding ships’ ballast water – could prompt
long-awaited federal action, Moore said. Michigan placed
restrictions on ballast water discharge into state waters of the
Great Lakes. The law already has withstood one legal challenge.

How bad could it be?

The effects of Great Lakes invasive species have varied greatly,
according to Moore, and studies show there remains a steady stream
of unwelcome passengers entering the lake via shipping industry
boats and recreational watercraft.

How VHS could influence fish populations and those who count on
fish stocks in Lake Superior remains the great unknown.

“The problem at this point is not knowing,” Moore said. “It
could be catastrophic, or it could be insignificant; we can only
base (how serious the threat may be) on past experience, such as
those we’ve had with lampreys and alewives.

“My opinion is that the risk is great,” he said. “Some
biologists are calling it (VHS) the ebola (a virus deadly to
humans) of fish diseases.”

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