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Bait sellers dispute shipping ban

Thousands of shiny minnows wriggle in a tank at Big Catch Bait and Tackle on Niagara Street. Normally, they would be shipped to bait shops from Vermont to Wisconsin.

That was before an October prohibition on the interstate shipment of certain live fish over fears of spreading a virus that has been found in fish throughout the Great Lakes.

Combine that with a subsequent state regulation restricting in-state fish movement, and Big Catch owners Bill and Pat Van Kamp say their business, worth $500,000 in sales a year, is threatened because of what they consider overzealous regulation.

"If I saw a million dead fish floating down the river, I'd say, 'Fine,' " Pat Van Kamp said, "but we haven't seen that at all. The percentages aren't there to justify what they're doing."

State and federal regulators disagree.

Significant die-offs in the Great Lakes last summer involved fish that were subsequently found to have the virus, viral hemorrhagic septicemia, said Jim Rogers of the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which issued the interstate ban.

"We've seen that before. However, there was also a study that essentially expanded the list of fish we thought were susceptible [to the virus] to 37," he said. "Between that and the die-off, we decided we needed to stop the movement of fish while we decide what we need to do."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation followed up on the federal ban in November by enacting an intrastate ban on those 37 fish, including the minnows, and a ban on the harvest of bait fish from certain waters, including Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Niagara River.

"The regulation was enacted because New York State considers [the virus] a significant threat to our fisheries resources," said department spokeswoman Maureen Wren.

The Van Kamps, and others, aren't so sure.

"We thought this was an overreaction," said Gordon Robertson, vice president of American Sportfishing Association.

Robertson said the association was particularly upset because there was little, if any, consultation with the groups impacted by the ban before it was implemented.

"They did that without discussing their order with state fish and wildlife agencies or any segment of the sport fishing industry," he said. "We just thought that was poor public policy."

The VHS virus, which poses no threat to humans, can kill fish by causing internal bleeding, but not all fish that get the virus are killed by it.

Exactly what percentage of fish that have the virus are killed by it and how it is transmitted among fish are questions the Van Kamps say remain unanswered.

"[Regulators] are going on the possibility of what might happen, but they've never really studied it," Pat Van Kamp said.

Jerry Olejniczak of Penrod's Bait and Tackle in Buffalo said he believes all of the area's waters are contaminated with the virus.

"I think it's been here a lot longer than they they think it has," said Olejniczak, who said bait sales account for up to 75 percent of his sales. "They don't know enough about it to make a decision like they have."

The ban was criticized by the president of one of the area's biggest fishing clubs, the Southtowns Walleye Association.

"They shut the door after the horse is out of the barn," said David "Woody" Woodworth. "It's disappointing."

email: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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