Baitfish Regs Change to Protect Fisheries

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Baitfish Regs Change to Protect Fisheries

1/10/08

Public Hearings Scheduled Beginning Jan. 29

Waterbury, Vermont – The 2008 ice fishing season is just getting under way, and anglers who fish with minnows are hearing about Vermont’s new emergency baitfish regulation enacted to protect Vermont fisheries.

The emergency regulation was put into place temporarily to allow time for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board to enact a permanent regulation that will replace the emergency regulation. Hearings to gather public input and comment on the proposed permanent regulation will be held in late January and early February.

Shawn Good, the Fish & Wildlife Department fisheries biologist heading their Aquatic Nuisance Species Team, says the existing emergency rule as well as the permanent rule the F&W Board is working on are necessary to prevent Vermont’s waters and fish from becoming infected with a deadly fish virus known as Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS).

“For someone just finding out about the emergency regulation, I can completely understand how this may cause concern,” said Good. “We realize the law is a significant change from the previous rules controlling baitfish use in Vermont. The emergency rule was written in response to a real danger we think is imminent -- the potential arrival in Vermont of the VHS fish disease.”

In the last two years, the VHS virus has rapidly spread through the Great Lakes and inland waters of several Great Lakes states, killing hundreds of thousands of fish in the process. Fisheries managers in the affected Great Lakes states have all imposed similar regulations regarding baitfish use.

Good said the rapid spread of aquatic nuisance species and new fish diseases is a sign of the times and an unfortunate reality fisheries biologists and anglers are forced to deal with.

“It’s truly unfortunate that we have to make these hard decisions. New exotic species, including fish diseases, are spreading around the world at an alarming rate, and Vermont is certainly not immune to receiving them.”

Biologists think a mutated form of the ocean strain of the VHS virus arrived in the Great Lakes soon after 2000, but was not detected until 2005 when it began killing many species of fish inLake Ontario by the tens of thousands. In 2006 and 2007 the virus spread and killed fish through four of the five Great Lakes (Lake Superior so far is VHS-free). “Some biologists now estimate VHS has killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fish in the Great Lakes,” said Good.

The virus has also spread to inland lakes and ponds in New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. Experts in those states believe the harvest, movement and use of wild baitfish is the most likely method by which the virus has moved to these inland locations. However, the virus can also survive in water and be moved in boats, bait buckets, trailers, livewells, and bilge areas of boats.

The VHS virus is now widespread in the St. Lawrence River directly to Vermont’s north and in several of the Finger Lakes to the west. Good says it is almost certain that we will see this virus reach Vermont in the near future.

“It is the responsibility of the Fish & Wildlife Department and the Fish & Wildlife Board to respond to the dangers this impending disease poses to fishing in Vermont,” stressed Good. “Fish disease experts in the Great Lakes have said VHS may be the worst fish disease anglers will have to deal with in our lifetime. No other fish disease currently known can infect this many species and spread this fast. We must respond appropriately to the risk if we want to protect Vermont’s valuable fisheries.”

In some Great Lakes states, the VHS virus has begun to show up in smaller inland lakes and ponds, and Good points out that officials in those states were unable to react quickly enough to prevent the spread of the virus to inland waters.

“By the time they tested dead and dying fish and identified VHS as the culprit, the virus had likely been present in those waters for upwards of two years, slowly working itself through the fish population,” said Good. “Unfortunately, in that period of time, untold numbers of baitfish were harvested, moved and used in other state waters, and now the virus is showing up and killing fish in those other waters.”

“We have the benefit of witnessing the fish kills in the Great Lakes from a distance and learning from their mistakes. We must be proactive in protecting the fisheries in our lakes and ponds. If we are diligent and have good angler understanding and cooperation, then we believe we can keep Vermont’s fish populations healthy and maintain the fishing we enjoy.”

Good says that since the disease may take two years or more to start killing fish in noticeable numbers after first invading a lake, it is impractical to close lakes to baitfish harvest and movement on a case-by-case basis as VHS is discovered.

“People understandably have a lot of questions and concerns regarding these new rules,” said Good. “The public hearings starting at the end of the month will give anglers a chance to speak out. Many of the people who have contacted us understand the issue and realize something needs to be done. What we are hearing at the same time, however, is that there are areas within the regulation that could be improved. We truly want a final baitfish regulation that will protect Vermont’s fisheries from diseases such as VHS while at the same time minimizing the burden on anglers, and I say that both as a biologist and an avid angler myself.”

Public hearings will begin at 6:00 p.m. for each of the following dates and locations:

January 29, 2008
St. Albans Town Education Center
169 South Main St., St Albans

January 30, 2008
Springfield High School
303 South St., Springfield

February 4, 2008
Montpelier High School
5 High School Dr., Montpelier

February 5, 2008
Rutland High School
22 Stratton Rd., Rutland

February 6, 2008
Lake Region Union High School
317 Lake Region Rd., Orleans

For more detailed information on the VHS fish disease and how to help prevent the introduction and spread of VHS, visit http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/vhs.cfm.

To get additional information on the current regulation, please contact Shawn Good, 802-786-3863 or Tom Jones, 802-241-3708, at Fish & Wildlife.

Media Contact:
Shawn Good, 802-786-3863, Tom Jones, 802-241-3708, Eric Palmer, 802-241-3700
 


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