Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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OH: Cause of Erie fish die-off still unknown

Thousands of walleyes washing up on the big lake, biologists
say

Sandusky, Ohio – For the past 10 days, Lake Erie fisherman Tom
Lykins has been noting dead or dying walleye in the western
basin.

“For the last week, I’ve been witnessing a lot of dead walleyes,”
said Lykins, who lives in Hillsboro but keeps a boat on Lake Erie.
“They all seem to be from the same age group, 2007 hatch and bigger
fish… I was just afraid it was VHS (viral hemorrhagic
septicemia). It’s all of these females being stressed from the
spawn. That’s the only reason I can figure that they’re all in the
same age group.”

Indeed, dead walleye by the thousands have been washing up on Lake
Erie’s beaches since the early part of May, said Ray Petering, the
fisheries chief for the DNR Division of Wildlife.

Signs pointed to VHS as the cause, though testing was negative for
the disease, Petering said.

Testing was conducted by the University of Toledo and by a U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service lab in LaCrosse, Wisc.

Surveys of the western basin are being conducted by air, Petering
said, to get a better handle on the scope of the problem.

“The hope is that we’re talking of thousands (of dead walleyes) and
not hundreds of thousands,” Petering said.

After aerial observations were conducted on May 12, Petering said
the number of dead walleyes is likely in the thousands not hundreds
of thousands.

“Fishing has not been good lately but we do not feel it has
anything to do with the kill,” Petering said. “Fishing should
improve with improved weather and lake conditions.”

The lab results will tell Ohio biologists the cause of the die-off,
but the solution to the problem is likely non-existent.

“If it turns out to be a bacterial disease or a viral disease, all
the labs will tell you that’s what’s going on,” Petering said.
“It’s not like you can do anything about it.”

The timing of the disease couldn’t be worse, Petering said.

“Clearly, when you’re in a situation where the last two years we’ve
gone down to the wire (on bag limits), something like this is the
last thing you need,” he said.

In a typical year, Petering said about 30 percent of the walleye
population is lost to natural causes. Depending on the severity of
the die-off, bag limits could be affected.

“If we’re talking thousands, it’s not really going to have an
effect,” the biologist said. “If it ends up being something so
extensive that we’re talking hundreds of thousands, it’s a
different story. At this point, it looks like it’s toward the lower
end rather than the higher end.”

Dead fish are being seen from Maumee Bay all the way to Kelley’s
Island, Petering said, so it’s fairly widespread in the western
basin. It makes sense, Petering said.

“That’s where these fish are spawning,” he said. “They’re either
coming out of the Maumee or the Sandusky or spawning on the reefs.
That’s where the concentrations are right now.”

Fisheries biologists on Lake Erie have theories on the cause, but
will wait for the lab results for the definitive answer. One
disease in particular, though, was a likely culprit, Petering
said.

“Some of the things that you would expect with a VHS outbreak are
present here,” he said. “The fact that it’s a single species is a
red flag. The fact that the species has just finished spawning and
they’re in the poorest condition that they’ll be in all year is
another factor. And, water temperature is perfect (for a
VHS outbreak).”

VHS is most likely to occur when water temperatures are between 40
and 55 degrees such as they are now. Fish are more susceptible to
the virus just after spawning due to the stress that is already on
them, Petering said.

“It’s been a tough year up there,” he said. “Fish are stressed from
spawning, the weather’s been horrible, and the lake is stirred up
and muddy.”

This wouldn’t have been the first time that VHS hit Lake Erie, if
in fact that’s what it was this time. The lake suffered a fairly
large drum kill in 2006 that was attributed to VHS.

“After we had that drum kill, I really felt like every year that
passes and we didn’t have another kill that we’d be less likely to
have one,” Petering said. “Because those fish are building up
resistance (to VHS). I really thought that we were pretty much out
of the woods with it. You can pretty much go up there and collect
(fish) and find (VHS) because they’re carrying it. But, they’ve
been dealing with it and it’s not killing anything. So, this would
be very disappointing if it’s VHS.”

Humans are not susceptible to VHS but there are some precautions
that anglers should take, said Petering.

“As long as the fish that you are eating are fish that you caught,
there’s no issues with it,” he said. “That’s probably the No. 1
thing we want to get out to the public.”

Meanwhile, fisheries biologists in Ohio are watching this spring’s
hatch with fingers crossed.

“Coming out of a long, cold winter with extended ice cover – which
there’s a school of thought out there that’s what you need for a
good walleye hatch – nobody is feeling good about a walleye hatch
now based on how the month of April went down and continuing into
May,” Petering said.

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