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Rules to contain disease restrict bait fish

Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia poses no risk to human health, Region 9 Fisheries Manager Paul McKeown told interested anglers and bait dealers at a public information meeting at Woodlawn Beach State Park on Monday evening.

"But it might be stressful if you own a bait business," he quipped at the start of his presentation outlining emergency regulations the federal government and the Department of Environmental Conservation have imposed on the handling of fish from area waters.

About 125 people packed the hall at Woodlawn Beach to hear McKeown, Lake Erie unit leader Bill Culligan and other DEC officials discuss the emergence of this disease and the emergency measures the state had set up to curb, if not eliminate, its spread. VHS has been shown to be always fatal.

The sad irony here is that the possession and transportation of bait fish, abundant in Western New York waters, are being restricted heavily as one means of controlling this fish disease. Senior aquatic biologist Mike Wilkinson worked this fall on issuing a temporary permit to transfer some of the large number of emerald shiners that had gathered in great numbers around an industrial water intake in the upper Niagara River to another site in the upper river.

Transfer of these and other bait and game fish species are severely regulated under these emergency regulations put in place until Jan. 22.

On the morning of the DEC presentation, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources imposed a three-zone restriction on live bait fish. In the Infected Zone adjacent to those U.S. waters identified as VHS fish mortality areas, live bait fish will not be allowed to be commercially harvested or transported north of Highways 401 and 402.

"Ontario has imposed a 120-fish per person bait possession limit and Pennsylvania earlier had set it at 50 bait fish. So we're just about in the middle with a 100-fish [live or dead] bait possession restriction," McKeown explained.

He went on to describe the unusual nature of VHS in inland waters. Once known mainly as a threat to marine fish and to rainbow trout kept in rearing pens in Europe, the new strain of fish virus-type IV B has proved fatal to about 40 species of fish, including about 15 species in freshwater. What's worse, McKeown pointed out that, to date, the only accurate way to determine a fish has contracted this virus is through a cell culture.

Culligan noted that infected cells cannot be treated in adult fish, but scientists have successfully treated eggs from infected fish. Those eggs resulted in uninfected offspring.

Unlike most diseases that become rampant during warmer periods, this newer strain of VHS appears mainly as waters warm in the spring at temperatures of 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit.

VHS symptoms appeared in Lake St. Clair in the spring and first affected fish in New York State during the spring of 2006 in St. Lawrence River waters and during the early summer in Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and in Lake Erie.

To date, only Conesus Lake walleye have tested positive for VHS infection among all species in the area's inland waters.

The possibility of transporting VHS to additional inland lakes in bait buckets, on boats of anglers as well as DEC vehicles and vessels prompted these statewide regulations.

Reactions from those attending the DEC's VHS meeting focused mainly on questioning the extent of restrictions placed on wholesale and retail bait dealers.

Dave "Woody" Woodworth, president of the Southtowns Walleye Association, began a line of discussion questioning the severity of the restrictions and requesting DEC officials rely on bait dealers to participate in the regulation and limitation of bait transfer and use.

Many upper Midwest states require bait dealers to issue notices with live bait sold so that those baitfish can only be used in designated waters.

Culligan noted another impact on club and major tournaments when he said that adult, live fish caught in both New York State and Ontario waters are not allowed to be brought across international borders. "[The DEC regulations are] not intended to regulate tournaments," he said.

Federal bans on transporting live fish will not affect walleye contests greatly, but most bass tournaments require live fish entries, with points lost or exclusion of dead bass brought in for contest entry, Woodworth said later.

Comments were not accepted during this meeting, but Culligan encouraged all to voice their opinions on these regulations before Jan. 23. DEC decision-makers will gather all comments submitted to Jan. 22 and "each different option will be considered when formulating new regulations," he said as the meeting ended.

To make comments on VHS management, write to: Shaun Keeler, NYSDEC Bureau of Fisheries, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4753 or e-mail: fwfish@gw.dec.state.ny.us.

e-mail: willodrs@gmail.com

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