As an avid fisherman there are few things I love more than a day on Lake Erie hoping that the walleye and perch will take the bait, or fishing with my fly rod in the lake’s watershed rivers and streams for steelhead trout. Having lived on the “North Coast of America” my whole life, I share Ohioans’ deep appreciation for the Great Lakes. They hold one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, provide a habitat to countless species of wildlife, are a vital resource for tourism, transportation, and recreation and provide drinking water to millions of Americans.
Given the hard work that has gone into cleaning up Lake Erie, it should come as no surprise that I don’t look kindly on rolling back the progress we’ve made. Today, the Great Lakes are facing a new enemy — a virus spreading quickly that threatens the robust fish population.
Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) is a destructive pathogen that produces internal hemorrhaging and death in fish. The disease does not pose a risk to people, but could have a profound effect on the health of the lakes. It was recently found to affect a number of fish species previously not known to be susceptible, including baitfish species, coho salmon and channel catfish. Dead and diseased wild fish have been reported in Lakes Erie, Ontario and St. Clair as well as the St. Lawrence River.
Commercial and sport fishing is a $4 billion industry in the Great Lakes, and the fish population needs to be protected. On October 24, 2006, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an emergency federal order to prevent the spread of VHS within the Great Lakes. It prohibits the importation of 37 species of live fish into the United States from the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec and prohibits the interstate movement of these live fish from specified areas in the United States. According to APHIS, these specified areas include fish farms, which are often used to restock fish populations throughout the Great Lakes.
The fishing community’s reaction to this order has been passionate and mixed. Many are concerned the prohibitions could be economically devastating to the industry and the region. Although this is a real short-term concern, it is vital that we work to ensure the long-term stability of the Great Lakes for our children and grandchildren.
APHIS made the decision to issue the order because the spread of VHS could severely affect fish populations and the future of the Great Lakes. Understanding that there are concerns about the order, a meeting was held in October to allow comments from the Great Lakes states and other interested parties to see how APHIS might be able to modify the current emergency order. Representatives from the Great Lakes states shared their concerns that the original order was overly restrictive and would damage the fishing industry. They urged APHIS to modify and ease the current restrictions on the movement of live fish within the Great Lakes.
Following the meeting, APHIS modified their emergency order to allow the interstate movement of live fish within and from the Great Lakes provided they have tested negative for VHS. While the modifications are an improvement, there are still real concerns about the viability of the order. While APHIS is still in the procress of developing a final rule in relation to VHS and the Great Lakes fish population, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has indicated that Ohio does not have the testing facilities to comply with this order, which affects not only the state but the aquaculture industry. They have indicated the need for approximately $200,000 to adequately fund the Ohio Department of Agriculture for testing equipment.
Doing the right thing in this case means taking on the challenge of balancing both the environmental and economic needs of the Great Lakes. Hearing the concerns from industry, I introduced an amendment to the 2007 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that would have provided $1.5 million to Great Lakes states to help establish testing facilities. I will continue to fight for the funding needed for Great Lakes states to comply with the emergency order.
I am a long-time friend of the Great Lakes and Ohio’s commercial and sport fishing industries. VHS is a threat that needs to be dealt with immediately. As an avid fisherman, it’s important to me that we ensure the long-term stability of the Great Lakes. APHIS needs to work closely with the Great Lakes states to develop a final rule that provides balance to the region and quickly solves this problem, so we can all enjoy the lakes for years to come.