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Published: Sunday, 6/11/2006

Ohio commercial fishermen concerned

A bill to allow the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to buy out remaining Lake Erie commercial fishing licenses was introduced last week by State Rep. Jim McGregor (R., Gahanna).

If the proposal, House Bill 609, eventually becomes law it would end commercial netting in Ohio waters of the lake and the end of what in most cases has been a generations-long if dying tradition for the remaining dozen or so license-holders.

The proposal would provide $4 million in state general revenue funds to buy up 18 licenses under a formula based on each licensee's average catch between 2000 and 2005.

McGregor acknowledged that with legislators on break till at least August and possibly September, then a break for the fall campaigns and elections, action on the bill might not be completed this year. That means it would have to be re-

introduced under a new legislature and governor in January.

But he contends that his proposal, which has five cosponsors, is "treating [commercial] fishermen fairly through a buyout." He claimed that $4 million, based on the licenses presently held, would provide each fisherman with a year's income during which he could find other work or job training.

"They need some time to land on their feet," McGregor added. "Basically this [bill] is kind of the completion of a project that was started in 1982." He was referring to the state buyout of all Lake Erie commercial gillnetters then.

"We in the department feel that a buyout of the commercial [trapnet] fishing industry could have a positive impact on sport fishing and the billion-dollar industry that surrounds it," stated Dave Graham, assistant chief of the ODNR's Division of Wildlife.

McGregor admitted that a major reason behind his proposal has been the recent year-long felony-racketeering scandal involving a goodly portion of the commercial industry and revolving around underreporting and marketing of valuable Lake Erie yellow perch catches.

At least 40 tons of underreported catches were documented in two years alone in the racketeering cases. Additional related cases are pending.

"There's been a tremendous amount of collateral damage done," McGregor contended. On the other hand, "sport fishing has been a tremendous benefit to northern Ohio," he added, saying that he wants to do what he can to see the lake's sport fishery and associated tourism prosper and grow.

Part of a statement from McGregor's office states this: "In a nutshell, the state of Ohio has lost its ability to manage the perch fishery because our biologists cannot trust the numbers coming from the commercial fishing industry. This puts the health of the Lake Erie fish populations in jeopardy, and negatively affects the performance of this economically important sport fishery."

The proposed $4 million buyout, the statement goes on, "is a small mount of money compared to the billion-dollar-plus sport-fishing industry, an industry which is totally dependent on healthy fish populations.

"Eliminating the commercial fishery on Lake Erie will quickly stabilize and improve the health of the perch population."

Announcement of the planned buyout was met with predictable reactions.

"We in the department feel that a buyout of the commercial fishing industry could have a positive impact on sport fishing and the billion-dollar industry that surrounds it," stated Dave Graham, assistant chief of the ODNR's Division of Wildlife.

He noted that the division takes in a little more than $100,000 a year in commercial license fees and royalties, but adds: "We're spending five to seven times that to administer and oversee the industry."

Sportsmen, however, not the general public, end up paying for the disproportionate enforcement costs because it is their license fees, along with hunting and trapping license money, that are the main sources of support for the division. Ohio sport fishermen in 2005 spent nearly $14 million on fishing licenses alone.

Graham noted that the division's Lake Erie enforcement unit is forced to spend 85 percent of its time monitoring commercial fishermen because of the distrust issues that erupted in the racketeering scandal.

He added that the fish-consuming public would not be left without yellow perch, inasmuch as 40 percent of the Ohio commercial trapnet catch already is sold to Ontario processers and provincial commercial gillnetters already export Erie perch taken in Ontario waters to Ohio and elsewhere.

"We encourage passage of it," stated Bob Collins, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, which says that it represents 650 of the 750 charter-fishing guides in Ohio. LECBA earlier initiated a petition campaign urging a buyout plan similar to the one on the table. Commercial fishermen, however, were hardly enthused at the prospect of seeing an end to the heritage businesses they grew up in.

"Not for it," said fisherman Mike Szuch. "The trapnetting business is the only source of income we have. We don't go to work in the shipyards or Jeep or wherever," he added, noting that the vast majority of charter guides are part-timers. "Do you know how many people we feed?

"We put our life into this job. This has been my life," Szuch said, noting that his may be the last generation of commercial lakemen anyway. "I'd like to stay afloat another 15 to 20 years. How am I at my age [35] going to go back to school, to find a new job? How do I dispose of all this equipment?"

Jeff Herr, another trapnetter, said has not read the buyout proposal so he could not directly comment on it. But he questioned the proposed $4 million allotment for the buyout. "This industry has millions of dollars invested in just the catching."

He noted, moreover, that the yellow perch netting has been poor so far this spring on the heels of a poor fall season. "It's the worst spring since '99."

As for a buyout, he thought it would come down to the reality of another North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]. "It's along the lines of NAFTA. Everybody's exporting jobs."

The same virus that killed tens of thousands of sheepshead, or freshwater drum, in western Lake Erie this spring also is responsible for some of the dieoff of up to several thousand yellow perch in central Lake Erie in the last two weeks, the Ohio Division of Wildlife says.

The virus is known as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS. It is the same virus known to have killed sheepshead in Lake Ontario's Bay of Quinte in 2005.

"It appears this virus is not specific to drum," stated Jeff Tyson, Lake Erie fish management and research supervisor for the division. He added that at least one muskellunge from Lake St. Clair succumbed to VHS last year.

Presence of VHS in the dead perch was confirmed by both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Laboratory at LaCrosse, Wis., and an independent lab in Seattle, Tyson said.

As a result state fish biologists netted samples of a variety of fish species last week and have sent them for testing to determine how far the disease may extend.

"The central basin [perch] dieoff hasn't been on a par with the sheepshead dieoff in the western basin in May," Tyson said. He stressed again, as authorities have previously, that VHS poses no harm to human health and any fish caught that acts healthy is healthy.

In its late stages a VHS-infected fish will have sides that appear sore or bloody and could be bleeding from the gills.

Tyson also noted that with a system as large as Lake Erie, there is little that can be done about the virus in any case. "There is no treatment or anything."

He added that some of the perch also may have died from post-spawn stress, which is normal, and some from commercial trapnetting "bycatch" of undersized fish. But it is impossible to assess which cause was responsible for how much of the kill.

Commercial fishermen, he added, "cooperated with us and gave us some samples."



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