The great bait debate is still on the plate.
A viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) infestation of fish some three to four years ago prompted Department of Environmental Conservation officials to place severe restrictions on movement of all kinds of fish, including baitfish.
For the past two years, bait dealers have had to sell only certified bait. For anglers around Western New York, the prime bait species for perch, and other panfish, had been emerald shiners.
Stocks of certified emeralds ran out early each season, forcing bait dealers to salt shiners for later sale and continue live bait sales of certified bait fishes from bait-farming facilities.
Helen Domske, coordinator with the Lower Great Lakes Sea Grant, gathered area fisheries representatives from the region's agencies who met with DEC officials in early June.
The main focus of the meeting was to adjust bait sales and purchases so that VHS would not be expanded further while allowing anglers to use preferred baits when fishing area waters.
In essence, anglers and bait dealers are looking for latitude in transporting bait fish along the Lake Erie and Niagara River shoreline for use in the same waters from which the bait was captured.
Currently, anglers can only use bait taken at the site of their access to the waters fished; no bait can be transported to another site on Lake Erie or elsewhere.
Jeremy Hurst, DEC Fisheries Chief, listened to all points made and acknowledged that this situation was difficult. At the end of presentations, Hurst maintained that the prevention of further VHS spreading was utmost in the agency's considerations.
Another meeting of DEC officials and area fisheries leaders is being considered for some time in October, but no firm date or confirmed place has been determined.
Pat Van Camp, working with husband, Bill, at Big Catch Bait & Tackle on Niagara Street, has some poignant questions that she put forth at the June meeting, and she continues to pose critical assessments as the bait-dealing regulations remain unchanged.
"I was at the June meeting," Pat Van Camp said earlier this week, "and when both sides finished their presentations I asked them (DEC officials) if any VHS virus had been found in bait fish over the past two years." She noted that it took some shuffling before an area fisheries supervisor said no.
"They've (bait-sales restrictions) killed our morning trade. They (anglers) find some other thing to do like golf or yard work," she said.
The Van Camps sell emerald shiners as both wholesalers and retail bait dealers. "Our sources of certified emeralds ended by late January this year, before Lake Erie ice fishing season even started," she said, adding, "we didn't have anything but salted minnows at the start of the spring perch season." As a result of these highly restrictive New York State regulations, she noted that anglers now are catching and transporting bait illegally with hopes they won't be caught.
The Van Camps strongly believe the rules have been established to favor out-of-state vendors. "The southern fish farmers who grow golden shiners we're forced to sell, lobbied to sustain this VHS ban. With a ban on wild-caught bait, these vendors could sell more pond-raised golden shiners," they asserted.
As a result, the Van Camps believe everyday area anglers suffer most with New York's bait restrictions. "Bottom line, we can take a loss, but we can sell other stuff to stay in business," she asserted.
Joe Fischer, Chairman of the Erie County Fisheries Advisory Board, reported that during the New York State Conservation Council fall meeting Sept. 19, council representatives voted 36-0 on a resolution to use Route I-90 as a barrier to transport bait along the Lake Erie shoreline. Fischer added, "The resolution is one DEC officials have been considering as a two-year pilot program to study the VHS barrier options."
Wally John, DEC director, took the resolution to DEC headquarters. DEC responses will probably be withheld until a formal meeting has been held.
Most recent DEC statistics for Lake Erie May-August perch catches show this year's harvest nearly triple the 2008 harvest -- 22,960 in 2008 and 67,065 a preliminary figure for 2009. The catch numbers continue to improve for emerald-shiner foraging fish; other states and Ontario permit limited transportation of bait along the Lake Erie shoreline.
For now, anglers must wait to move live bait and use whatever bait works best to pan panfish, perch and all others that might take an emerald shiner.