Fishing takes a sickly turn
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Friday, 20 April 2007 12:30

A state decision to forgo at least a year of stocking three types of sports fish may be just the beginning of hard choices as a new fish disease makes its way through the Great Lakes.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources will not produce or stock walleye, northern pike or muskie this year, to ensure it does not contaminate any of its hatcheries with VHS, shorthand for viral hemorrhagic septicemia. New bait rules, to prevent the transfer of the disease among various water bodies, also are being developed.

The disease already has caused fish kills in Lakes Ontario, St. Clair and Erie. It has been detected in northern Lake Huron fish samples. The U.S. Animal and Health Inspection Service has banned transport of fish across state lines, a nonsensical notion where the lakes are involved. A Michigan angler can cross-contaminate four of the five Great Lakes without leaving the state. Conversely, it's silly to enforce state and international boundary lines in western Lake Erie, where a fishing boat can easily spend time in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario waters on one short trip.

Enforcement needs implementation on a lake-by-lake basis, though it may already be too late.

VHS almost surely arrived via ballast water. This year may demonstrate further spread, particularly if it shows up in Duluth, where most ships dump ballast water rather than take it on. That will mean there is no protecting Lake Superior, which otherwise benefits from little fish movement through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

Anglers also can play a key role by disinfecting their boats and gear every time they move to a new body of water. But once an invasive fish, plant or pathogen reaches the lakes, stopping it is almost impossible. For a pathogen such as VHS, a slower spread may prove helpful, though, perhaps fending off massive die-offs and allowing fish gradually to develop immunity.

The Great Lakes sports fishery has an economic value in the billions of dollars yet is routinely jeopardized by overseas biological pollutants dropped off here with ballast water from the tanks of ocean-going ships. If dead fish pile up along the state shoreline this spring, it will be yet another token of national and international spinelessness in confronting the shipping industry.
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