Experts say Lake Erie fishing is safe
Written by Associated Press   
Friday, 02 June 2006 12:46

The holiday weekend marks the traditional start of the Lake Erie fishing season, and wildlife experts say the fishing is safe despite recent scares involving a virus affecting sheepshead and a die-off of perch.

"I don't see any problem with touching or handling or being exposed to any of those fish," said John Hageman, laboratory manager and Ohio Sea Grant extension agent at Put-in-Bay in the Lake Erie resort islands near Sandusky.

The biggest issue for people who want to enjoy Lake Erie would be rotting fish that could make the lakeshore smell and raise bacteria levels in near the shore, Hageman said. "The sheer numbers (of dead fish) are going to cause problems as they decay," according to Hagemen.

 Last year Ohio sold 872,000 fishing licenses. This year's sales through April, at 272,600, were up more than 10 percent over last year.

The traditional start of the season comes after back-to-back scares involving sheepshead, also called freshwater drum, and yellow perch, a Lake Erie favorite. Yellow perch have been dying off in Lake Erie's Central Basin area near Cleveland, but appear to be OK in the Sandusky area's Western Basin.

Kevin Kayle, a state fish biology supervisor at Fairport Harbor northeast of Cleveland, said officials are observing from 50 to 500 dead yellow perch when they examine shores from the Vermilion-Lorain area extending east to Pennsylvania. Most are in the 5- to 8-inch range, indicating they are likely in their first spawning cycle and hatched three years ago.

Yellow perch are the most valuable commercial fish harvested from Lake Erie and generally are rated the tastiest by anglers in Ohio. If properly cleaned and prepared, the perch remain safe to eat, Kayle said.

Officials had initially suspected a virus was to blame for the deaths but some now believe they may have died in commercial trap nets. "We had our pilots fly over offshore waters to see if there was a perch kill related to commercial trap nets," said Gary Isbell, head of fisheries management for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. "They spotted plumes of dead perch coming from the side of the commercial fishing boats as they pulled their trap nets a few miles north of Lorain."

Perch caught in deep-water nets and hauled to the surface can be harmed by a change in pressure. Fisheries experts say perch could also be stressed from being crowded in the trap nets. But fisheries biologist Chris Vandergoot in Sandusky said the perch deaths should not be blamed solely on commercial fishing. "Dead yellow perch have been reported in the Fairport Harbor and Conneaut areas, far east of where commercial nets have been set," he said.

Perch sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laboratories in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for testing showed no signs of a virus.

Fish experts tracking the yellow perch problems have identified a virus as the cause of an earlier die-off of the less-desirable sheepshead in the Sandusky-Huron area. The virus appears to have run its course, and the sheepshead population seems to be strong, biologists said.

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