Lakes hit by deadly virus
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Friday, 27 October 2006 17:21

A federal order designed to prevent the spread of a fatal fish virus in the Great Lakes could increase the cost of live bait, cripple commercial fish farms and take a bite out of the region's $4.5 billion sport fishery.The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, issued an emergency order this week banning the interstate shipments of 37 species of live fish between the eight Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The order was aimed at preventing the spread of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, or VHS, a saltwater virus that showed up in parts of the Great Lakes last year. The virus, suspected of being imported to the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean freighters, has caused die-offs of 14 fish species in Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, according to federal officials.

Fish managers said the virus likely will spread to Lake Michigan and Lake Superior and eventually kill a portion of many species of fish, including trout and salmon. The virus does not affect humans, according to state officials.

"We're going to see more dead fish because of this," said Gary Whelan, fish production manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He said, "it's just a matter of time" before the virus spreads to Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

Federal officials said preventing shipments of live fish across state lines and international borders in the Great Lakes basin would halt the spread of the virus to private and government-owned fish hatcheries.

Fish managers said the rule will hurt bait dealers, anglers and fish hatcheries -- private and government-owned -- that distribute trout, steelhead and other species across the Great Lakes basin.

"It's going to drive up bait prices and it's going to put some people out of business," said Gary Studt, owner of Wendel's Wholesale Bait and Tackle, a live bait wholesaler near Ionia. "I can almost guarantee there are going to be bait shortages."

The order could disrupt Michigan's fish hatchery program by next spring, Whelan said. Michigan, for example, raises steelhead for the state of Ohio in exchange for channel catfish; the federal order immediately banned that exchange of live fish for the foreseeable future.

Halting the interstate transfer of live fish could hurt the $4.5 billion Great Lakes sport fishery, much of which is supported by salmon and other fish raised at hatcheries in Michigan.

"This will certainly have an impact on people who raise fish in Michigan," Whelan said. "It's unclear what it will mean for (the state's) hatchery system."

Chris Weeks, president of the Michigan Aquaculture Association, said the federal order will be financially devastating for people who raise trout and other fish to sell to restaurants and food brokers in neighboring states.

"We have growers in this state who will be severely impacted by this rule," Weeks said.

The VHS virus found in the Great Lakes last year is a new strain of the saltwater virus, according to federal officials. The virus causes bloating in fish, lesions and bleeding from the eyes and gills; it is transmitted from fish to fish.

VHS has not been detected in any aquaculture facilities in the Great Lakes basin, according to federal records. The source of VHS in the Great Lakes is not known, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture records.

Some Great Lakes fish managers believe the deadly fish virus was imported here in the ballast water of ocean freighters from Europe or Asia.

"VHS probably came into the lakes from ballast water. I think that's the likely vector, given the way the virus has skipped around the lakes," Whelan said.

Over the past 50 years, ocean freighters have imported many of the 180 exotic species now living in the Great Lakes, including the zebra and quagga mussels.

Under a 1993 federal law, ocean ships must exchange ballast water in the Atlantic Ocean before entering the Great Lakes system. Open-water exchange of ballast water is supposed to kill any organisms living in the ballast tanks of freighters.

But most ocean freighters enter the Great Lakes loaded with cargo and no ballast water, which is used to stabilize empty ships. A recent study found that ships entering the lakes with empty ballast tanks still carry millions of live organisms, including deadly bacteria and other pathogens, that could accidentally be discharged into the Great Lakes.

Ray Petering, the head of fisheries management for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said federal officials have done little to halt the introduction of exotic species into the Great Lakes.

"The Great Lakes states have been crying for 15 years about the ballast water of ocean freighters introducing invasive species to the Great Lakes. As of today, APHIS has done nothing," Petering told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Then VHS shows up for a couple of months, and wham, we get a federal order and can't move live fish within the Great Lakes states."

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