Hatchery disease dooms Erie trout

Erie, Pa. – Steelhead bound to be stocked in Lake Erie's tributary streams and brown trout destined to go into the lake itself are instead likely to be destroyed.

A routine annual inspection of fish in a couple of Erie County cooperative nurseries revealed that the fish, which originated in the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission's Corry hatchery, are infected with IPN, or infectious pancreatic necrosis.

It's a viral disease that can affect all kinds of fish, but is particularly common among trout and salmon.

"The fact is that we had IPN at our facilities and it got moved around," said Earl Myers, leader of the agency's cooperative nursery unit.

The disease poses no human health threat, according to agency officials.

But it can pose a risk to other fish, and that's something the commission – at long last – is unwilling to risk.

Rather than stock the fish, the commission was planning to euthanize 62,900 steelhead and 15,000 brown trout.

The disease was discovered in October. Word of that discovery was made public the last week of January.

This isn't the first time IPN was found in a commission hatchery. This is the first time the commission is killing fish as a result of it, though.

Typically, according to a paper written for the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission by Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologist J.G. Hnath, IPN is most deadly to fish when they are in the fry and fingerling stage.

Fish that survive beyond that stage, though, become carriers of the disease.

In the hope of preventing the disease from taking hold in naturally-reproducing populations of lake trout and other species in Lake Erie, the commission has long recommended against stocking any IPN-positive fish.

The commission never violated that, by the letter of the law. It did skirt the issue a bit, though, by previously stocking IPN-positive steelhead in Lake Erie's tributary streams.

It's not going to do that again, Myers said.

"Basically what this has done is make us look a little harder at our program and take the steps to be sure we're not stocking any IPN-positive fish in the Lake Erie basin," he said.

How and where the disease originated this time around no one can say, Myers added. The commission's Corry facility had gone two consecutive years without any incidents of IPN until this year, when it unexpectedly showed up again, he said.

A desire to get rid of the disease once and for all, and to come into compliance with the wishes of the Fishery Commission, is behind the launching of an oft-talked-about, never-undertaken major overhaul at Corry, Myers said.

The commission is looking into getting a new source of water for the hatchery, revamping the facilities there and creating an isolated, high-security area where a new strain of fish can be raised from disease-free eggs, he said.

"The good that's going to come of this is that we're going to have a new program, a more intensive biosecurity program, that will result in less disease transfer between facilities."

In the meantime, biologists, hatchery managers, cooperative nursery operators, and others were to meet Feb. 7 to decide exactly what to do with the IPN-positive fish on their hands.

Euthanization was expected to be the option because it's not a good idea to stock the fish anywhere else, said Rick Levis, press secretary for the commission. The agency does not want to put the fish into inland waters outside the Erie basin, he said.

Anglers shouldn't worry the lost fish will mean poor fishing, though, Myers said.

The commission has a goal of stocking 100,000 brown trout in Lake Erie annually for a near-shore fishery. Forty-three thousand disease-free fish have already been released; another 60,000 are available in the commission's Tylersville hatchery.

The lost steelhead can't be replaced, but losing about 63,000 out of the total of one million to be stocked is not crushing, Myers said.

"It's a little bit, but it's not something we can't get past, that we can't survive," he added.

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