Proposal would simplify rules on use of minnows

Lansing — New rules proposed by the DNR’s Fisheries Division would make it simpler for anglers to buy and use minnows, and for baitfish gatherers to bring them to market, all while continuing to monitor the environment for diseases.

The changes would become part of Fisheries Order 245 established a decade ago to protect fisheries resources from threats such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) by restricting commercial minnow trade and sales, and how and where anglers could use baitfish and fish eggs, called roe.

The order was established after VHS was discovered in the Michigan waters of Lake St. Clair in 2005.

Establishing zones where VHS was classified as documented, likely, or not found, limited which baits could be used based on their sources and testing and, at least initially, required that anglers buying minnows from bait shops obtain and carry receipts certifying that the bait had been tested and found disease-free.

“Largely, these regulations have been effective,” the DNR wrote in a memo to the Natural Resources Commission, which oversees its policies and programs, “and we have seen only a single positive detection of VHS from (one) lot of shiners, and two positive detections on inland waters.” Those were Budd Lake in Clare County, which experienced a fish kill, and Base Line Lake in Allegan County, where VHS was detected in brown bullheads collected in a fish survey.

“We acted conservatively to protect the resource” in those early rules, “which is what we should do,” Nick Popoff, manager of the DNR Fisheries Division’s Lansing-based Aquatic Species and Regulatory Affairs Unit, told Michigan Outdoor News.

“The disease may still exist in the environment, but it hasn’t caused problems to the degree originally feared. The time is right to relax some of its provisions, but not vigilance,” he said.

Four years ago, Michigan’s Office of Regulatory Reinvention suggested the rules be relaxed to free anglers of the receipt requirement, but require baitfish producers to produce, sell, and distribute only certified baitfish and roe to retail outlets. 

In 2014, the DNR recommended and the NRC approved lifting the receipt requirement, which it said was “a burden on the retailers and the public.” 

And, it established a work group to review the order in its entirety – to simplify it while reducing importation of baitfish into Michigan; require any importations to be disease-free; simplify testing but keep it effective; and help restore the health and image of Michigan’s baitfish industry.

Early in the review process, the work group brought the bait industry into the process when it became clear that “requiring all baitfish to be certified would likely cripple the industry.” 

Popoff said current testing protocols require bait to be kept for 28 days, impractical during much of the year because waters get too warm. Eighty percent of Michigan’s minnow harvest comes in November, though, when that testing is more viable.

Of the work group’s five original goals, one – that all Michigan bait be certified – would be dropped under the proposal. Such a requirement would effectively shut down the industry in all but the fall months. And it would increase minnow importation from other areas, which Popoff said requires disease testing but not monitoring for aquatic invasive species.

Under the proposals:

• VHS surveillance zones would be abolished;

• lists of susceptible fish species would be combined;

• restrictions on use of fish eggs in exclusion zones would be dropped, since eggs have not been shown to transmit VHS;

• all baitfish harvested in November and December have to be certified disease-free; 

• spring disease testing in what is called the lakes Huron-Erie corridor would be required – that would allow for more sale of spring-collected Michigan baitfish, and help reduce importation;

• and all personally collected bait would have to be used in the same waters from which it was collected.

The remaining level of testing and certification would be sufficient to detect any resurgence of the disease: “If VHS or another harmful disease is detected, the (DNR) would implement an emergency order to mitigate spread and harm,” the DNR memo said.

Other nearby states, the DNR memo notes, have dropped their VHS testing requirements, and the disease is no longer reportable under federal rules. But, “Michigan has the most to lose by not being proactive in protecting our important water resources from VHS and other disease transmission,” leading to its continued vigilance.

The regulation changes were to have been presented as an information item at the Natural Resources Commission’s March meeting in Holland. They would become eligible for action at the NRC’s April meeting.

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