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Federal Order about Fish Virus Disrupts Industry, Agencies, and Anglers

Fish management and fish farming in the Great Lakes has received a significant one-two punch. The first punch came with the discovery of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) in the Great Lakes. This virus is serious in many parts of the world and has recently caused significant fish kills in the Great Lakes. In Lake St. Clair, large muskies — some over 45 pounds — died as a result of VHS, and freshwater drum in lake Erie have washed up in massive stinking, rotting windrows.

The second punch came in the form of a federal order from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which as of October 24, 2006, prohibits movement of 37 species of live fish between the eight Great Lakes states. The order has caused major disruptions in the movement of fish and serious economic consequences for private fish farmers. For instance, anglers on the New York side of Lake Champlain can’t bring their emerald shiners (a bait minnow) over to the Vermont side of the lake. Also, bait producers can’t bring emerald shiners caught in the New York waters of Lake Erie into Ohio for use a fishing bait in Lake Erie.

The order has also disrupted research by preventing fish transfer between federal laboratories in different states, and prevented state agencies from stocking sport fish they were going to get from other states. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Continent Ecology Lab in Duluth, Minn., could not get a shipment of catfish for a research project because the shipment would have to cross the Wisconsin state line.

The World Organization for Animal Health classifies VHS as a reportable disease, which means they consider it a threat to the environment and to aquaculture. In Europe it has caused major economic losses to fish farms, mainly those raising trout. In the Great Lakes VHS has been responsible for die-offs of a broader variety of species. The virus poses no human health effects. No one knows how VHS made its way into the Great Lakes, but since it is closely related to the virus found off the coast of New Brunswick, it may have been brought in by fish swimming up the St. Lawrence River or by ballast water. So far the virus has not been found in lakes Superior, Michigan, or Huron even though extensive testing has been conducted.

While it is in the best interest of the environment and U.S. fish farmers to stop the spread of VHS, the federal order by APHIS was recently criticized by state and federal regulators as well as by Great Lakes fish farmers.

The problem is that the order banned movement of fish from any state bordering the Great Lakes even though only a small part of the state is in the Great Lakes watershed. For example, only 7.3 percent of Minnesota is in the Great Lakes Basin, yet fish farmers that are only miles away from South Dakota or Iowa can’t move their fish.

Great Lakes fish farmers and management agencies feel discriminated against by this order because APHIS ignored that water is diverted out of Lake Michigan and ultimately flows into the Mississippi River. Using the same logic that closed all of Minnesota because it’s connected to the Great Lakes, every Mississippi River Basin state should also be closed to live fish transport. Zebra mussels have certainly demonstrated how easily and rapidly organisms can spread through those connected waters.

Another problem is timing; the order came just as fish farmers were harvesting fish they have invested a whole year getting to market size. Many of these fish are raised in waters that freeze out during winter – meaning no fish survive. That’s what makes these waters so valuable, because they can stock next year’s fish into “clean” waters. Without the ability to market their fish across state lines, fish farmers could lose fish and income.

APHIS is currently considering changing their order and plans to take comments from fish farmers and state, tribal, and other federal agencies to develop an interim rule – possibly by spring 2007 — that will take the place of the federal order.

While the hope is that the interim rule will better address the real risks posed by fish movement and will have accepted testing protocols in place, it will be too late to prevent economic hardships for fish farmers and bait producers, losses of sport fish stocking programs, and delays in research projects.

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By Jeff Gunderson
November 2006

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