(Editor's note: This is part 1 of a 2-part story about federal VHS regulations and their effect on recreational and tournament angling.)

On Oct. 24, 2006, fisheries agencies throughout the Great Lakes area were presented a new federal order that profoundly impacted recreational and tournament angling within and around their borders.

The new emergency order, and subsequent revisions, came from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). The order's purpose was explicit: Prevent the spread of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) – an aquatic virus implicated in a number of large-scale fish dieoffs in the Great Lakes basin.

For "affected" or "at-risk" states – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – the order prohibited the interstate or international transport of live fish.

Most importantly for BassFans, the emergency order immediately made it illegal cross state or international lines with a live fish in the well.

To use popular tournament venues like the Niagara River, or Detroit River, or St. Lawrence river as examples, that meant anglers couldn't fish the Canadian side of the river, then bring fish to the U.S. side of the river to weigh in.

It also meant that an angler fishing out of Sandusky, Ohio, couldn't fish the Canadian or Michigan portion of Lake Erie, then return with live fish to the Ohio weigh-in.

The effects don't end with tournament bass angling, though, because live bait is also heavily regulated under the new order, to the point where in some states it's now illegal to carry live bait in a vehicle unless it's been certified disease-free.

That impacts any bait shop not located within walking distance of a launch or marina. It also drives up the price of bait at a time when cost is perceived as a major hurdle in angler recruitment.

What Is It?

VHS is a fish rhabdovirus that poses no threat to human health.

Like largemouth bass virus, fish may carry VHS and spread the disease, but never appear sick. Conversely, they may carry then exhibit the disease, notably during periods of stress.

When the virus becomes active, it can cause hemorrhaging of fish tissue, including the internal organs, and the death of infected fish. Once a fish is infected with VHS, there is no known cure.

Fish exhibiting the disease may show the following symptoms: hemorrhaging in the skin, including large red patches, particularly on the sides and front portion of the head; multiple hemorrhages on the liver, spleen, or intestines; hemorrhages on the swim bladder that give the otherwise transparent organ a mottled appearance.

The virus has been blamed for fish kills in a number of the Great Lakes, plus one New York Finger Lake (Conesus). The World Organization of Animal Health has categorized VHS as a transmissible disease with the potential for profound socio-economic consequences. Because of this, it lists VHS as a disease that should be reported to the international community as an exceptional epidemiological occurrence.

The specific mutation of VHS currently found in Great Lakes fish is the IVb isolate. This particular mutation has been responsible for:

> A large-scale sheepshead (freshwater drum) kill in Lake Ontario's Bay of Quinte
> Significant musky and perch kills in Lake St. Clair
> A gizzard shad kill in the St. Clair River
> A musky and perch kill in the Detroit River
> A sheepshead and perch kill in the central and western basins of Lake Erie
> A round goby kill in Lake Ontario
> A musky kill in the St. Lawrence River
> A whitefish and walleye kill in Lake Huron's Thunder Bay

In the St. Clair case alone, thousands of muskies died.

When, How Did It Get Here?

VHS was first discovered in Europe in the middle part of the last century, where is was a costly disease of farmed rainbow trout.

Since that initial discovery, four individual strains of VHS have been identified in both marine and freshwater environments.

Dr. Mohamed Faisal/Michigan State University
Photo: Dr. Mohamed Faisal/Michigan State University

A fish exhibiting VHS might show hemorrhaging of the skin (left), or hemorrhaging in the eye area (right).

In 1998, VHS was confirmed in spawning salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and it was determined to be a new strain (Type IV), which was believed to be a North American strain. It's widespread in the Pacific herring and cod populations, and has also been found in Atlantic herring and Greenland halibut.

The earliest confirmed report of VHS in the Great Lakes was from a St. Clair musky in 2003, so agencies believe the virus arrived sometime in 2002 or 2003. It was confirmed in spring 2005 after the Bay of Quinte kill, and in fall 2005 following the Huron kills.

It's not known how the disease spread to the Great Lakes, although natural fish movement, and the discharge of ballast water from commercial vessels, are viewed by many as prime potential culprits.

Anglers Out of the Loop?

The federal order originated from the USDA – an agricultural agency – and its purpose was to prevent the disease from entering the aquaculture industry (fish-farms and hatcheries). What perplexed some fisheries managers was how the federal order was enacted with little to no advice from, or participation with, state fisheries departments.

That's especially relevant since the economic impact of recreational and tournament angling far outweighs that of aquaculture.

In Michigan, the aquaculture industry is estimated to be a $2.5 million-per-year business, while the economic impact of recreational angling in Michigan is on the order of $1.5 billion, according to government officials.

Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) fish production manager Gary Whelan told BassFan: "We were consulted minimally. We had a call at the end of September with APHIS, and they asked us how they could help us. Then we didn't hear anything until they called and told us what they were going to issue the following morning.

"We certainly expressed our disdain," Whelan added. "But we're very unfortunate in that because I think that did cause a lot of hard feelings. I think we can do better, and we think APHIS can do better."

Bill Culligan, Great Lakes section head of the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), said: "APHIS made the regulations without very much consultation of the Great Lakes states. We wouldn't have done it that same way."

States vs. Waterbodies

No one denies that VHS is a potentially devastating disease that could affect fisheries across the continent. What's more at issue is how efforts to combat its spread are being conducted. Particularly, the current federal emphasis on political boundaries vs. the broader idea of an infected waterbody or watershed.

If the latter method were used, the effect on tournaments would likely be minimized. In other words, if Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River were considered a VHS-infected and connected waterway, anglers could move tournament caught fish across political boundaries.

Michigan, in fact, suggested such language to APHIS during a public comment period. In a letter dated Jan. 10, 2007, the Michigan DNR suggested, among other measures, that APHIS include a tournament exemption in a revised VHS order:

"The (Michigan DNR) requests that fish being moved within an area for fishing tournament weigh-ins be exempted if the fish are returned to the water from which they were harvested after weigh-ins. This would include fish being moved across state or international boundaries on a shared waterbody."


> The VHS regulations impact several triple-A and tour-level events slated for this year, notably the Detroit River FLW Tour, Champlain FLW Series, Detroit River Northern Stren, Hudson River Northern Stren, Champlain Elite Series and Erie/Niagara Elite Series. Of course, it also affects countless local and club tournaments.

> On March 9, the NYSDEC published a statewide emergency order to comply with the APHIS order. In it, the NYSDEC noted that Lake Champlain will not pose a problem for tournament anglers. Analysis of that situation, and others, will be provided in part 2.

> A BASS official told BassFan: "We're aware of the new regulations and we're working with the appropriate parties."

> FLW Outdoors has already restricted the field for its Detroit River FLW Walleye Tour and League to Michigan waters only. BassFan placed a call to FLW Outdoors for a comment regarding its upcoming Great Lakes bass events. The call was not returned.

> For part 2 of this article, and how the effects of VHS regulations stretch to other states and waterbodies, click here.

– End of part 1 (of 2) –