Menasha waters in health crisis; DNR closes lock over fish kill, virus spread
Written by Appleton Post-Crescent   
Sunday, 13 May 2007 05:25

A deadly fish virus that could threaten more than two-dozen game fish in the Lake Winnebago System led to swift action Saturday by the state Department of Natural Resources.

"This is a major fish health crisis," said Mike Staggs, fisheries director with the DNR, which ordered the Fox Locks Authority to close the Menasha lock, where numerous dead fish were found.

The DNR announced Saturday that two fish from Little Lake Butte des Morts had tested positive for a deadly fish virus called viral hermorrhagic septicemia, or VHS. Additional dead fish samples taken from Lake Winnebago also appear to have the virus.

Though VHS is not a health threat for people who eat or handle fish infected with the virus, it can infect more than 25 game fish, pan fish and bait fish species.

Little Lake Butte des Morts is part of the lower Fox River that flows from Lake Winnebago to the bay of Green Bay.

"Yesterday (Friday) was the first day of boating," said Steve Collier, a lock tender at Menasha. "I came down on the 4 (p.m.) to midnight shift and I noticed all the dead fish floating around. I'd never seen that before, especially at this time of the year. I couldn't believe how many there were."

Diane Schabach, harbormaster at the Menasha marina, said she was notified about 10:30 a.m. Saturday "that the lock was going to be closed down indefinitely, possibly just Saturday and Sunday, until they work on the situation and find out how serious the problem really is."

By late afternoon Saturday, Schabach was helping to take care of five boaters who were stranded and unable to get through.

Since the Menasha marina is located on the Lake Winnebago side of the lock, Schabach said there will be a greater impact downstream. "For the Appleton Yacht Club or anybody down there, they are limited to that lake for the time being," she said.

Dave Schanke, who lives on Little Lake Butte des Morts in the Town of Menasha, isn't concerned about the impact because he rents a slip at Menasha marina and usually boats on Lake Winnebago.

He figures the lock closure is "bad timing" since "Lock 1 and 2 in Appleton are scheduled to open up in coming weeks. It's going to take the momentum away from that opening.

"There's a lot of boaters down at Appleton Yacht Club that rely on that lock to get to Lake Winnebago," Schanke said. "It's going to be a big hit for those guys."

Schanke said he is concerned about the threat to the fishery. "It's important for the livelihood of the river," he said. "Fishing is part of our economy. People buy boats and fishing gear and come to the area."

Branden Clark, 19, a Menasha fisherman, was unaware of DNR advisory while fishing in a channel just north of the Menasha lock Saturday afternoon. He doubted that he would stop fishing.

"I like fishing a lot, it's my hobby," said Clark. "I'll keep fishing."

The DNR started posting boat launches with actions boaters should take to avoid spreading the disease.

Staggs offered practical advice to anglers: "Do not take live fish (including unused bait minnows) away from the landing or shore. Drain all water from bilges, bait buckets, live wells and other containers when leaving the landing or shore."

State fish managers had suspected VHS to be present in Lake Michigan and possibly in Lake Superior and in the Mississippi River. This would be the first infection to be confirmed in Wisconsin inland waters.

Wisconsin recently enacted emergency rules for boaters, anglers and people who harvest wild bait to prevent the spread of VHS in inland waters.

On May 11, the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab informed the DNR that two samples of freshwater drum (commonly known as sheepshead) taken from Little Lake Butte des Morts on May 2 had tested positive for VHS. The samples have been sent to a federal lab for confirmation.

The fish were collected by DNR fisheries staff during muskellunge spawning netting and were submitted for testing because they had shown external signs of VHS.

Since that time, the DNR has been receiving reports of hundreds of sheepshead dying on Lake Winnebago. On Wednesday and Thursday, samples of those dead fish were sent to the WVDL for testing.

An inspection of the Lake Winnebago fish by the DNR's certified fish health inspector showed the same external signs of VHS as the Little Lake Butte des Morts fish.

The DNR staff that collected the fish on Little Lake Butte des Morts reporting seeing dead and dying sheepshead washing over the dam separating that water from Lake Winnebago.

Because the virus can infect so many different ages and species of fish, VHS could spread more quickly in inland lakes, which are much smaller than the Great Lakes, potentially devastating fish populations and fishing opportunities.

Walleye, spotted musky, yellow perch, bluegill and northern pike all are susceptible to the virus, as are common bait species such as emerald and spot-tail shiners.
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