Great Lakes fish farmers say interstate shipment ban could devastate region's industry

Sunday, October 29th 2006, 4:55 pm
By: News On 6

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- A government crackdown on live fish shipments from the Great Lakes states is intended to check the spread of a deadly aquatic virus, but critics say it could devastate the region's fishing industry.

In an emergency order last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service banned interstate transport of 37 species of live fish from the eight states adjacent to the Great Lakes. Importing those species from the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec also was prohibited.

The agency's target is viral hemorrhagic septicemia, which poses no risk to humans but causes internal bleeding in fish. VHS was discovered in the region last year and is blamed for fish kills in lakes Erie, Ontario and St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River.

Among species susceptible to the virus are popular sport fish such as chinook and coho salmon, rainbow trout, walleye and yellow perch.

Federal officials do not know how the virus, long a problem in Europe, reached the Great Lakes. But state fishery managers believe it came in ballast tanks of oceangoing cargo ships, considered a leading source of exotic species such as zebra mussels that are
damaging the lakes' ecology.

The federal agency has scheduled a meeting with state and industry representatives for Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss regulations aimed at containing the virus.

The emergency order "just puts everything on hold until we can figure out what we're going to do," spokesman Jim Rogers said.

But some in the region said they were blindsided by the order, which could be especially hard on commercial fish farms and live bait vendors. It also could hamper stocking programs essential to the region's $4.5 billion fishery, critics said.

"This order will completely eliminate long-established trades of sport fish between state agencies that are crucial to the maintenance, restoration and enhancement of sport fish programs" in the region, Sam Flood, acting director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, wrote in a letter to the federal agency.

Dan Vogler, who raises rainbow trout in Harrietta, about 30 miles south of Traverse City, said the order had taken away 70 percent of his customers. He sends live fish to other states for sale in restaurants and markets, and for stocking lakes and rivers.

The virus hasn't been detected on any fish farm in the Great Lakes region, Vogler said. Michigan has 47 fish farms, with combined sales of $2.4 million in 2005, according to the USDA.

Greg Oswald, president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association, sells his fathead minnows for sport fishing bait across the nation. He estimated his business could lose $600,000 this year and more in 2007 if the interstate ban continues.

Industry spokesmen said the ban could mean live bait shortages and higher prices.

Dealers who supply bait shops in Ohio buy about half their stock from other states, said Fred Snyder, an Ohio State University extension agent. Ohio's trout farmers get young fish to raise from other states.

Meanwhile, trout farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin have millions of pounds ready for stocking lakes elsewhere.

"All of a sudden they can't move these fish," Snyder said. "These people are going to be financially devastated."

The National Aquaculture Association, a fish farming trade group, asked the government for regulations to help prevent the virus from spreading, said its president, Randy MacMillan. He said the association didn't request the emergency order but understands
the need.

It could take the federal agency two or three months just to write interim rules, MacMillan said. "In the meantime, the movement of potentially infected live fish would continue," he said.