Dozens of local bait dealers and sport fisherman challenged the state Monday on its methods for containing a deadly virus that is killing off a wide variety of fish in the state's inland waters, including the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
While not at all dangerous to humans, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia is a serious pathogenic virus affecting fresh-water and saltwater fish of varying species, sizes and age ranges, said Paul E. McKeown of the state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 9 Fisheries Unit.
The disease causes hemorrhaging of fish tissue, including internal organs, and may result in the death of infected fish.
"It can cause high [fish] mortalities, potentially with severe economic consequences. In the fish culture systems, it could kill up to 100 percent of the fish," McKeown told those assembled for an informational hearing in the Woodlawn State Park Beach building in Hamburg.
The state in November adopted a set of emergency regulations to help prevent the spread of the disease, including closing waters to commercial harvesting of bait fish where the disease has been found. In addition, personally harvested bait fish can only be used in the same body of water from which they were caught.
The new regulations also say bait fish purchased from a bait and tackle store must have a fish health inspection report by a qualified fish health inspector to certify that the fish are disease-free. Regulations also limit to 100 the number of bait fish one may possess for noncommercial fishing, whether the bait was personally harvested or bought at a bait and tackle store.
Ron Hutcheson, owner of A-1 Bait Lower Niagara Shop in Lewiston, said such restrictions would be onerous.
"Don't just say you can only sell this guy 100 bait fish. That's not going to pay my electric bill, let alone my insurance," Hutcheson complained.
State environmental officials, who have been holding informational meetings on the new regulations around the state, will be accepting public comments through Jan. 22. Comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (518) 402-8896.
Meanwhile, the federal government in October began prohibiting the importation of certain live fish species from Ontario and Quebec, and the interstate movement of those same species from eight states bordering the Great Lakes -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin.