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Published: Tuesday, 5/8/2007

Ag department wants ban on hauling fish modified

The Ohio Department of Agriculture is seeking relief for about three quarters of the state from a federal order banning movement of any of 36 species of live fish because of their susceptibility to a quickly spreading fatal fish virus.

The virus, Viral Hemorrhagic Septicimia or VHS, was blamed for the deaths of thousands of yellow perch and sheephead in central Lake Erie last summer, among other species and other waters in the Great Lakes.

Last fall a federal order restricted interstate movement of 37 species of live fish throughout the Great Lakes State and the Northeast, plus Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Late last week Robert Boggs, Ohio agriculture director, issued a proclamation to prohibit live-fish transport outside a northern quarantine zone.

The zone includes the area from the Indiana border north of U.S. 6 to the intersection of U.S. 6 and I-90 at Fremont, and continuing on north of I-90 to the Pennsylvania border. It also includes the Sandusky River as far inland as the Ballville Dam at Fremont.

The aim of the proclamation is to allow movement of live fish for aquaculture while respecting the need to contain VHS, said LeeAnne Mizer, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. It is hoped, she added, that the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will go along with the plan.

Testing to date by the state's Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory has revealed that VHS is not present in the lower three quarters of the state. And although 37 species, including almost all the familiar Lake Erie sport and commercial fish and baitfish, are on the VHS hit-list, channel catfish are not included in the state agriculture order because they have not been shown to be susceptible, Mizer said.

Channel catfish are a popular food fish, and popular for stocking of ponds and pay-lakes, among other things.

In a related development, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources last month halted for a year the production and stocking of walleye, muskellunge, and northern pike as a preventive measure toward containing VHS. The virus has been documented in lake whitefish, walleye and chinook salmon stocks in Lake Huron and muskellunge in Lake St. Clair, among other Michigan waters.

Roger Knight, Lake Erie program coordinator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, stressed that VHS is not transmittable to humans. "It's a significant fish virus. It's one of the nasty ones around the world and it's unique."

But Knight is guardedly optimistic about the long-term consequences of VHS in the Great Lakes, explaining, "fish develop immunities to viruses just like any animal does."

He said that crew from the wildlife division's Fairport Harbor station will be on Lake Erie this summer, sampling for VHS. "We're just getting into the temperature window where this virus gets active," Knight stated. Unfortunately, he added, "there is nothing we can do about it."

Because of the blanket federal order, he added, "we're going to be dependent on our own emerald shiners for bait. Being able to move bait in Ohio [along the lake] is important to us. We still would like to be able to get bait from New York, but New York has its own rules, too."

New York is among the states that share Lake Erie, and even though they are the same emerald shiners whether they are in Ohio or New York waters of the lake, the federal order does not account for that.

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