Bait shop owners worry spread of VHS disease could decimate minnow sales
By Eric Sharp
Detroit Free Press
January 18, 2007
Pssst! Want to buy a contraband minnow?
Chances are you may do that in the next few months as bait dealers feel the effects of new rules about moving baitfish because of a disease called viral hemorrhagic septicemia.
VHS was found in Lake Ontario two years ago and has spread to the St. Clair and Detroit rivers and lakes Erie and St. Clair, where last spring and summer it killed tens of thousands of fish ranging from bluegills to 4-foot-long muskellunge.
Biologists hope to keep VHS out of lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, or at least slow its progress for a few decades, and the U.S. government thinks the best way to do that is stop the movement of infected baitfish.
Tackle shops in Great Lakes states can buy bait minnows only from sources that have been tested for VHS and cleared, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture may extend that testing to all states by the summer.
Testing will raise prices some, but the real crunch will come in the spring and summer, because the testing takes several weeks and the emerald shiner minnows most anglers want can be kept alive for only a few days once the water starts to warm.
One of the country's biggest suppliers of emerald shiners and other minnows predicts that bootleg bait will show up in tackle shop tanks if smaller stores are unable to get the legal kind readily and economically.
"From June to October, we can't hold emerald shiners for more than a week," said Ben Gollon, who runs Gollon Brothers Wholesale Live Bait in Stevens Point, Wis. "Many of the bait shops don't have the same water quality we do, so it's an even bigger problem for them."
Gollon says it costs about $1,000 to test a fishpond for VHS, which adds about 10% to his costs. He believes that if the APHIS ban results in minnow shortages, "we'll see a lot of illegal movement of fish" netted from infected waters.
"I just bought a $150,000 truck. I can't afford to take a chance on having it confiscated," he said. "But some people who run mom and pop stores will just hop in their truck or van and go buy a few gallons of minnows wherever they can get them. If they don't have minnows, it really hurts their overall business."
APHIS held meetings recently in Michigan and other states to hear comments on proposed new rules for shipping baitfish. It's a surprisingly large business, with tens of millions of minnows moving across the country every day to supply anglers, aquaculture and ornamental fish farms and even sport fish-rearing operations. A Michigan Department of Natural Resources hatchery spends about $50,000 on minnows every year to feed baby muskellunge.
Bill Dougherty owns Bottom Line Bait & Tackle in Rockwood, one of more than 600 Michigan minnow sellers. He says he has had to increase minnow prices, because he has been forced to use more fuel and travel farther afield to buy them or net them himself from uninfected waters.
"We have to keep minnows in here," Dougherty said. "People can go to Wal-Mart and buy hooks and jigheads for a quarter cheaper than I can sell them. What I offer is one-stop shopping, because I have bait. We'll still be able to get fatheads (minnows) from places down South, but the suppliers already are asking a lot more for them, and those aren't what the fishermen want."
Rich Sowards of the Little Dipper tackle shop in Flat Rock sees his livelihood threatened by the new rules.
"Why isn't anyone doing anything to stop the oceangoing ships that are bringing in these diseases and exotic species?" Sowards asked. "Why aren't we making the ship owners pay for the damage they're causing? They're making us the sacrificial lambs."
Sowards says southern minnow suppliers have told him that it will cost $10,000 this year for the same number he bought for $5,000 before the VHS outbreak, "and that's for things like flatheads that I'm not sure I can sell, because the fishermen want emerald shiners."
Biologists worry that as VHS spreads in the Great Lakes, it may soon affect major game and commercial species like walleyes and salmon.
The genetic fingerprint of the virus in the Great Lakes linked it to a variant previously seen in salmon in the Canadian Maritime provinces. Many experts believe it reached the Great Lakes in the ballast water of an oceangoing ship that came up the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Gary Whelan, a Michigan DNR biologist who tracks fish diseases, thinks efforts to stop the spread of VHS will prove futile and that it will move through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River drainage, where it could become a scourge for commercial fish farmers.
"As soon as it gets to the Chicago area," Whelan said, "it will get into the Mississippi River drainage system" through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. That waterway was created in the early 1900s by reversing the flow of the Chicago River and opening the western end of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi.
"Once that happens, if I were one of those fish farmers down in Arkansas, I'd be trying to figure out what I was going to do when it hits my ponds, because I'm convinced (VHS) is going to get there."
Whelan added that biologists "see new viruses in the lakes all the time. Most don't get established, but if they do, chances are you'll have them forever. They may produce an immune response in some species and seem to disappear, but they're always lurking in the background. And once something like weather or a lack of food stresses the fish, the virus flares up again.
"We'll do all we can to try to mitigate the problem and minimize its impact. But the real question is, when are the feds finally going to get around to getting control of the ballast water problem?"
Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or email@example.com. Order his book "Fishing Michigan" for $15.95 at www.freep.com/bookstore or by calling 800-245-5082.