VHS rules relaxed

Madison – The Natural Resources Board granted the wishes of many
anglers and the Legislature when it recently relaxed rules
involving viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), to allow anglers to
reuse minnows.

The change will allow fishermen to take minnows off the water
and reuse them later if they were purchased from a Wisconsin bait
dealer and not exposed to the lake or river water, or will be used
for later use only on the same water.

DNR Fisheries Director Mike Staggs told the board that he’d
heard concerns about fishing rules, but this time he received
objections from three different legislative committees.

“In my time, I have never seen more bi-partisan opposition from
both houses to a rule than on this rule,” Staggs said. “In
addition, there are a lot of anglers who are very concerned about
this, and that has concerns for us. There is a lack of acceptance
to parts of the rule, and a severe probability of widespread civil

The main issue is the reuse of minnows, and whether an angler
can take the minnows home at the end of the day. That was the
universal item, according to Staggs, to which people objected.

DNR staff tried to address the issue, while keeping the purpose
the same of stopping the transport of fish, fish eggs, fish parts,
and water from affected waters to unaffected waters. One of the
main vectors is baitfish.

The original rules prohibited people from leaving any water with
live fish, including leftover minnows.

Fishermen still cannot leave the water with live fish, but the
exception is if the they bought the minnows from a Wisconsin bait
dealer or fish farm (this means they have been through some fish
health inspection). Those minnows may be taken home at the end of
the day if they are not exposed to the lake or river water, or if
they were exposed to lake or river water and are returned to use on
the same water.

The DNR said this allows anglers to use minnows on a different
water if they haven’t been exposed to any water from the lake or
river fished.

“If people do this, there is no danger of spreading VHS,” Staggs
said. “We also made a small exception then to the draining of all
water from bilges, livewells, bait buckets, and other containers.
We would allow up to 2 gallons of water containing these minnows to
be carried away in order to transport the minnows.”

Staggs said he believes these changes will satisfy the
Legislature’s concerns, which had returned the proposed rules to
the DNR and board for modifications. The DNR, however, wanted to
close any remaining vector where VHS could still be transmitted.
The DNR, therefore, added a provision that no minnow harvesting of
any kind, including for personal use, may be done in waters with
VHS because those minnows would not have been tested or inspected
as are minnows sold by licensed bait dealers in the state.

“What this does is to say that you cannot harvest minnows in VHS
infected waters,” Staggs told the board.

The waters that are listed as VHS affected waters are the same
as last year: Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Winnebago system,
and the Mississippi River and tributaries upstream to the first dam
or barrier.

If the DNR were to find VHS in other waters, it would announce
test results in a press release and publish a notice in the
official state newspaper of new waters added to the list.

Staggs hoped the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative
Rules would accept these changes and, if so, extend the emergency
rule with these changes until the permanent rules are in effect so
that there is no gap in coverage of VHS rules.

“If we are successful in getting understanding and compliance,
it should allow for continued great fishing in Wisconsin,” he said.
“I hope it shifts attention from arguing about one part of the rule
to understanding that this is a serious fish health issue and get
acceptance and compliance with the rule.”

Conservation Congress chairman Ed Harvey supported the changes,
saying that when the congress supported the emergency rule, it had
not considered the effects on ice fishermen.

“Generally, all ice fishermen use minnows and they generally
don’t mix lake water with their minnows,” Harvey said. “The
original rule requiring them to dump minnows is pointless and only
discourages fishermen from fishing or obeying the law.”

He said that reports this winter were that bait dealers are
selling fewer minnows and participation is down for ice fishing,
although deep snows could be the reason for this rather than the

Harvey said that open-water fishermen should have the same
privileges as ice fishermen, as long as they don’t move potentially
contaminated fish from lake to lake.

NRB member Jonathan Ela introduced an amendment that the board
approved. The change makes it known that minnows may not be
harvested from Lake Michigan, Green Bay, Lake Superior, the
Mississippi River, Lake Winnebago, the Fox River from Lake
Winnebago to Green Bay, or any waters where the DNR has reason to
believe VHS exists.

NRB member Gerry O’Brien said the rule is dependent on its
acceptance by fishermen.

“But, I think most anglers, if they understand the issue and why
the rules are needed, will do the best they can to comply,” Staggs
said. “The idea is to get better overall effectiveness by better
overall acceptance.”

Pat Henderson, DNR deputy secretary, confirmed that the new rule
is the strongest rule the DNR can get, and there have been
indications that legislators will accept this. If they did object
to the rule, then the board has the option to send the original
rule back to the Legislature for approval.

VHS first was detected in Wisconsin in May 2007 in the Lake
Winnebago system and Lake Michigan.

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