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Commission responds to outbreak of fish virus

If a fisherman goes to Erie County and comes home with a shiner these days, it had better be a black eye.

The other kind -- the emerald shiner popular with anglers as a baitfish -- is off limits.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has temporarily banned the transportation of live fish -- including shiners and 119 other species -- outside of the Lake Erie watershed.

That's in reaction to an outbreak of a fatal fish virus, known as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS, in the Great Lakes. It showed up in Lake Ontario and Lake St. Clair in 2005, then killed off a number of yellow perch in the Ohio portion of Lake Erie last May.

What having the disease around means is open to interpretation.

Gary Heubel, owner of Poor Richard's Bait Shop in Erie, would like to see the Fish and Boat Commission ban the catch and sale of Lake Erie emerald shiners altogether, as New York did, even if that means he would have to start buying bait instead of catching it himself.

He's afraid some fishermen will ignore the ban and take live bait from Erie elsewhere, thereby infecting additional waters.

"Saying that we can continue to catch and sell shiners but that people can't take them anywhere, that's like saying we can sell marijuana but our customers can't inhale," Heubel said. "They're going to do what they want to do."

Erie emerald shiners are reportedly a favorite bait among anglers at Kinzua Dam, for example, Heubel said, so that water is at risk.

Rick Hoopes, director of the commission's bureau of fisheries, said the ban is sufficient for now, however.

"There has been, in my opinion, a lot of hysteria fomented about this," Hoopes said. "If there are fish in the water, there is going to be VHS in the water."

Doug Austen, executive director of the commission, agreed, noting that research suggests VHS increases annual musky mortality by 3-4 percent. The annual mortality of some fish species is 30-40 percent anyway, "so you're adding to it somewhat, but not terribly," Austen said.

The ban on moving live fish will remain in place until least Jan. 1. Fish and Boat Commissioners may make the ban permanent late this year, however.

Either way, local anglers shouldn't be hurt too severely, simply because emerald shiners are already hard to find in some places.

Dave Wass of Nicklow's Bait and Tackle in Addison -- one of just a handful of wholesale bait suppliers in southwestern Pennsylvania -- sells golden shiners rather than emeralds. They come from Arkansas and have never been shown to carry the disease, so none of his customers should be impacted.

"Knock on wood, so far we're OK," Wass said.

Emeralds aren't especially hardy either, so few if any bait shops around Pymatuning Lake sell them, added Dave Richter of Richter's Bait Shop in Jamestown.

"Now if they ever put a ban on fathead minnows, we'd be in trouble because that's what we use. But even then, most of our fatheads come from lakes in Minnesota," Richter said.

In the meantime, efforts to see just how widespread VHS is in the Great Lakes will be undertaken this summer.

"We will actively be collecting fish for sampling, and not just dead fish either," Hoopes said.

Other steps are being taken

The Fish and Boat Commission is dealing with VHS -- which was never found outside of Europe prior to 2005 -- in more ways than just the ban on moving live fish.

The agency has quit collecting northern pike from Presque Isle Bay to use as brood stock. It has also moved its steelhead spawning operations from the Tionesta fish hatchery to the one in Fairview. All eggs collected are also being disinfected.

Anglers shouldn't notice those changes. They may feel the pinch of VHS in another way, however.

The commission annually trades fish collected from Lake Erie with other states for species like channel cats, Rick Hoopes said. That practice will come to a halt unless the commission can certify that all of its Erie fish are disease free, he said. Doing that kind of testing may just be too costly to be realistic, though, he said.

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