Virus having impact on two hobbies
Written by Port Huron Times-Herald   
Friday, 06 April 2007 14:46

Think of it as recreational murder-suicide.

Two of the area's most popular summer pastimes may be close to extinction.

Fishing will die when viral hemorrhagic septicemia kills the fish in Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River and Lake Huron.

Freighter-watching will meet a similar fate as state and federal officials scramble to stop the spread of the disease in the other Great Lakes and across North America.

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia is the Ebola virus of fish. Infected fish basically bleed to death. It has killed thousands in Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River since it was found there in 2005.

Authorities are bracing for even larger spring die-offs as the water warms.

The VHS plague came to Lake St. Clair in the ballast water of an ocean-going freighter. Genetic markers show it's a variant of the disease that infects fish in North American Atlantic coastal waters. Other varieties kill fish in Europe.

The Great Lakes version appears to have mutated into a form that's particularly good at killing all the species of fresh-water fish we look forward to catching.

It's here, and there's no way to get rid of it.

That's why the Department of Natural Resources this week suspended its programs to rear and stock walleye, pike and muskellunge. Eggs for the hatcheries come from waters known to be infected with the virus, and rearing fish from those eggs only would mean spreading the disease.

So it's compounded bad news for anglers. Expect the virus to kill all the wild fish. Don't expect a DNR stocking program to replace them.

It's obvious that ocean-going freighters brought the disease here.

Michigan's new ballast law for ocean-going ships is a good idea. At least it would have been before there was anything left alive in the Great Lakes to save.

But now it doesn't go far enough.

What we have is movement of ballast water within the Great Lakes. A lake freighter that takes on ballast water in the St. Clair River could destroy fisheries across the continent if dumps it in southern Lake Michigan and it ends up in the Mississippi River.

There's almost no way for the disease to get into Lake Superior, for instance, without human help. Theoretically, I suppose, a recreational boater could move it there. But the far more likely scenario is it would travel up the St. Marys River and through the Soo locks in the bowels of a laker.

One federal agency has prohibited most transport of live fish into and out of the Great Lakes basin.

Michigan's Department of Natural Resources says that isn't enough.

While all the attention has been on the new ban on ocean-going ships dumping their contaminated ballast water in the lakes, the agency also has asked the federal government to prohibit ships from filling their ballast tanks with water from the lower lakes.

That's the only way to keep the virus out of lakes Michigan and Superior and points beyond.
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