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Regulations squeeze the bait business

Emerald shiners, a shining jewel with Lake Erie perch anglers, remain banned to transportation along area waterways. Western New York fishermen and bait dealers (wholesale and retail) anxiously await word from Department of Environmental Conservation officials in Albany about changes to emergency baitfish transportation regulations imposed in 2007.

An outbreak of fish kills that spring led to the imposition of a DEC emergency ban on transporting bait from waters from which baitfish were captured.

The regulation allows dipping bait from waters where anglers are fishing, but, for now, that bait cannot be transported away from that capture site -- not even to another site on that water body.

DEC biologists confirmed springtime fish die-offs were the result of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) infection detected during 2005 and 2006 studies.

DEC officials held a public forum July 13, 2010, at Sheridan Parkside Community Center in Town of Tonawanda to discuss VHS effects and seek input on changing bait-transportation regulations. Those attending sought changes basically because there have been no further fish kills since the 2007 incidents.

During a WNY Environmental Federation meeting at Hoak's Restaurant last Sunday, Paul McKeown, newly appointed DEC natural resources supervisor, reported that DEC officials in Albany were still considering transport corridor options for Lake Erie and the Niagara River.

They are. But those changes probably will not be made in time for the spring 2011 perch-fishing season on Lake Erie or Lake Ontario.

A call to Phil Hulbert, appointed DEC bureau chief of fisheries on Oct. 22, verified area anglers' fears.

Tuesday afternoon, Hulbert noted that the VHS virus, while not resulting in massive fish kills recently, has not disappeared. "[DEC biologists] are still studying VHS and no firm date has been set to change baitfish regulations," Hulbert said.

Area anglers generally comply with the ban, but, for Lake Erie perch fishermen, emerald shiners are an essential bait.

Pat Van Camp, operator of Big Catch Bait & Tackle with husband Bill Van Camp, has seen many breaches on the regulations.

"The law has made area anglers outlaws and, even more, has had a major impact on the bait-selling business," Van Camp said. She noted that less than a decade ago, Big Catch, a retail and wholesale bait dealership, employed up to 18 people during the peak season.

"We're down to just one other employee," she said, "but that's not just us. [The ban] is affecting all bait shops in the area."

"They [the DEC] are making it unaffordable to fish. It's laughable," she said. She pointed out that suppliers of certified emerald shiner bait are not making huge profits, just incurring greater costs. Suppliers would prefer to get and deliver bait from local bait operations.

Sales of golden shiner bait trucked from the South have seen much smaller profit than expected.

Bottom line: Area anglers need emerald shiners before perch fishing prospects brighten.

e-mail: odrswill@gmail.com

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