NY DEC confronting troubled waters
Written by Times Union   
Friday, 12 January 2007 06:15

A deadly virus that threatens every species of fish in New York waters is the newest crisis to slam our wildlife. Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia sounds awful, and is awful. There is no known cure. Once the virus is in a waterway, it remains. Every type of fish in fresh or salt water is vulnerable. While not every fish contracts it, or every fish that does go belly-up, huge die-offs are common.

It's a worldwide disease, common in Europe and Japan. The strain that's affecting us with a sudden vengeance, Type 4-B, was first discovered in the Great Lakes in 2005 and in New York waters last June.

Biologists are convinced the virus got here in the ballast of ships doing business in the Great Lakes, a depressingly common occurrence.

In a very short time, the virus has been identified as the agent of kills of muskellunge in the St. Lawrence -- which, considering how few of these large predator fish there are in the first place, is devastating news -- and of walleye in Conesus Lake. Other strains have been particularly brutal on trout and salmon.

So what's the good news? Well, it's relative. For one, the virus is no threat to humans, even if consumed in infected fish.

And in New York, the only waters that so far have tested positive are Lakes Erie and Ontario, the St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers, and the farthest west of the Finger Lakes, Conesus.

In November, an alarmed USDA put emergency regulations into effect severely limiting the interstate transport of certain species of live fish from infected states and Canadian provinces (Quebec and Ontario) in a hurry-up attempt to slow the spread of the virus. A week later, our own DEC invoked emergency regs to do essentially the same thing.

Bait shops are going to be nailed by these new rules, and all fishermen who use live bait will have to pay attention and avoid moving certain non-native bait fish from one body of water to another, a notorious agent for spreading a variety of diseases.

On Tuesday, the DEC held the last of 11 informational sessions across the state to spread the news about the virus, and spell out the consequences of the regulations, mostly concerning bait fish. In Albany, anglers and bait shop owners heard about VHS and how their lives suddenly have changed at the Sovereign Best Western.

The Great Lakes, long a source of bait fish, are now off-limits to commerce. In addition, every bait fish sold in the state must be tested and certified as virus free. Much of the commercial bait sold in New York actually comes from large farms in places such as Arkansas and Wisconsin, which already certify their fish as virus free, so the availability and cost shouldn't be affected that much.

But many shops buy wild bait taken from New York waters. For instance, the alewife and blue-back herring used by striped bass fishermen. Under the new regs, these bait fish will have to be tested, which is expensive, and effectively quarantined for up to four weeks before they can be sold. By then, the season is over.

Recreational bait users who catch their own will have strict rules to follow, as well. From now on, a fisherman can be in possession of up to 100 bait fish, no more. The idea is to prevent a lot of entrepreneurs from getting into the bait business now that bait shops are being restricted.

Also, anglers can use bait fish only in the same waters where the fish were captured, which will steer ice fishermen, especially, to buying certified bait from shops.

Since we had no ice fishing season to speak of, the first wave of frustration over the new virus-inspired regs probably will come with the striper season at the end of March.

Live herring that are certified will be hard to find. Chunk bait will be very popular this year, is my guess. The virus needs a live host to survive, thus the emphasis on regulating live bait.

Those recreational anglers who rely on netting them in places like the mouth of the Poestenkill, a tidal tributary, will be disappointed to learn that as far as the DEC is concerned, that is not the same water as the Hudson estuary 50 feet away and is therefore a no-no if you intend to use the fish in the Hudson. The same applies to even the first couple hundred yards of the Rondout, or Esopus, or Catskill Creeks. But if you jig herring in the estuary proper up by the federal dam in Troy, nothing stops you from using those bait fish way down river for personal use.

From the bait shops came the obvious question that if the object of the regs is to closely control bait fish as a spreader of the virus, then why aren't recreational anglers being held to the same restrictive standards of testing and certification as bait shops?

Arguably a very good point. We can only hope it doesn't come to that.
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