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Michigan Charter Boat Association

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VHS Disease is found in perch

Lake Michigan finding raises alarm for fishery


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Posted: June 14, 2008

The deadly fish disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia has been found in Lake Michigan yellow perch, heightening concerns about the plight of the popular native fish and the vulnerability of the Wisconsin sport fishery in general. Great Lakes

"It's not good news, but it's not unexpected," said Randy Schumacher, regional fisheries supervisor in Milwaukee for the Department of Natural Resources. "The real priority now is keeping the virus from getting transferred to inland lakes."

The finding comes a week after VHS was detected in round gobies found dead on beaches in South Milwaukee, the first such finding in southern Lake Michigan. Another in a string of invasive species and diseases transferred into the region from Europe and Asia, VHS causes blood vessels to weaken and hemorrhage, often but not always killing the fish. It is not a threat to human health, according to the DNR.

The disease was first discovered in the Great Lakes in 2005 and has caused large fish kills in New York waters, including thousands of spotted muskies in the St. Lawrence River and walleyes in Conesus Lake, Schumacher said. VHS was detected in Wisconsin waters last year, first in freshwater drum in Lake Winnebago and later in brown trout in Lake Michigan waters near Algoma.

The disease is known to affect more than 30 species of fish, including chinook salmon and rainbow trout. The World Organization of Animal Health has categorized VHS as a transmissible disease with the potential for profound socio-economic consequences.

The spread of VHS casts more uncertainty over the future of the $2.3 billion Wisconsin sport fishery.

"It's really a shame," said Ted Lind of Milwaukee, president of the Wisconsin Council of Sport Fishing Organizations. "What can you do now? All we can do is wait and see how bad the fish are hit."

The latest finding comes days before Monday's opening of the yellow perch sport fishing season on Lake Michigan. The VHS-positive perch were collected June 5 as part of the annual spawning assessment conducted off Milwaukee by the DNR.

The lake's yellow perch population has begun to stabilize after a collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in a 90% to 95% reduction of the popular commercial and sport fish, according to DNR estimates. The commercial fishery was closed in 1996, and sport limits have been drastically cut to protect the remaining perch.

"There goes the farm," said Eric Skindzelewski of Milwaukee, president of Lakeshore Fisherman Sports Club, in reaction to the latest VHS finding. "This is the only recreation we've got, and if the perch go down more, it will be a tragedy."

Citing a decrease in prey fish, biologists have also been concerned about the condition of trout and salmon populations in the lake. Stocking of chinook salmon was reduced in recent years to better balance the predator fish to available prey.

But the average weight of chinook salmon has continued to fall, leading many to wonder if VHS will be the straw that breaks the back of struggling populations of perch and salmon.

Schumacher said it was difficult to predict the impact on Lake Michigan fish.

"Sometimes (VHS) has resulted in massive fish kills, and sometimes it hasn't," he said. "Some fish develop immunity to the virus, so we hope that our populations will be able to withstand it."

What's clear is that the negative effect of the disease will be multiplied if it reaches inland waters and takes a toll on muskies, walleyes and other popular fish. The DNR passed regulations last year that prohibit the transfer of fish between waters in Wisconsin, the most likely means of spreading VHS.

Schumacher said VHS posed no threat to humans and that anglers could continue to fish and eat their catch. Many fish with the virus show no physical sign; others have red blotches and bulging eyes.

However, as always, the DNR advises state residents to not eat fish found dead or decomposing or that appear sick, regardless of cause. Decomposing fish might attract other bacteria harmful to people.

Schumacher said the department would continue to test fish as part of ongoing assessments. But the biggest job, he said, was continuing to educate the public and preventing spread of the disease to inland waters.

"The ball is now in the court of the angler and boater on Lake Michigan to not transfer fish or water inland," said Schumacher, recalling the spread of zebra mussels. "It's illegal to take fish from one lake to another, and it would be a terrible thing to do."

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Michigan Charter Boat Association


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