July 23 • 11:40 AM

The truth about the VHS virus

July 01, 2007
"I remember when VHS was a form of recording video" one reader wrote. This form of VHS, however, is not something we would like to see replayed. Large fish die-offs have our underbudgeted fisheries scientists trying to perform yet another miracle. Much of the problem exists because this virus is the first of its kind in fresh water and is most likely another gift from our salt water neighbors. It is quite possible this virus, which resembles something found in Canadian salt waters, entered into the Great Lakes via a ship's ballast in 2002 then mutated itself into this freshwater version. It seems now that the invasive species have hit us from virtually every direction. Since the VHS virus has taken center stage many rumors have been circulating around the fishing community. "Dear Fish Diary" readers have sent in requests wanting answers to whispers they are hearing and I've tried to address them all.

Erroneous Rumor:

A possible ban on fishing in Michigan?

Many reports are circulating around Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan about a possible complete shut down of fishing for a year of all species. To the best of my research this is only grumblings among anglers and even though it has been reported by some news agencies there is not any validity to this rumor. As of now fishing is open and it is business as usual in the Great Lake State. That business brings in about 1.4 billion dollars annually to Michigan and over $4 billion annually to our Great Lakes neighbors. The field experts laughed at this rumor if that helps alleviate your worries.

Erroneous Rumor:

A no consumption warning is being placed on all Michigan fish?

Another great newscast, which actually aired a piece in my area, was claiming the DNR would put no consumption warnings on all Great Lakes species. The reports were claiming that VHS might cause illnesses among humans. "Not so" say the DNR researchers, claiming the VHS virus is a coldblooded disease having no affect on warmblooded creatures, such as humans. There have been, and still are by the way, "limited" to "no" consumption warnings on many fish in many Michigan waters. It is still best to check the fish advisory in your handbook, if you can find it, before eating any Michigan fish. But these consumption warnings are not because of VHS.

Erroneous Rumor:

A ban on live-bait usage in all Michigan waters?

Down the short road there might be some truth to this rumor. Although this ban would not include native crayfish or worms, there are already a few known bait fish included on the DNR's order which have tested positive for VHS. Spottail shiners, gizzard shad and emerald shiners are among those VHS carriers that might commonly show up in a minnow dealer's tank. Laws for minnow wholesale dealers, minnow retail dealers as well as fishermen are for sure going to change by the end of the summer fishing season. Emptying minnows into a watershed after a day's fishing is definitely a big no-no. Regulations for transporting live fish or using the roe from any fish on the prohibited list are also going to change.

Live-Wells And Ballasts

It use to be a customary gesture to empty ballasts or live wells when jumping from lake to lake but it should soon be a law carrying hefty fines. I don't know this for sure but I am basing this on the recent DNR fish disease control order, where it was placed, and how it read. There are far too many issues with the Great Lakes from spiny water fleas to the new VHS virus to mess around any more. It should soon be a state regulated requirement to empty live wells, clean hulls and empty ballasts when traveling from one body of water to another. If the anglers of this state can't be trusted to abide by warnings to protect our resources how can we expect those who don't use the resources to respect it?

The Disease Is Spreading

The VHS virus was found in Budd Lake near Harrison, which is part of Wilson State Park. Since the virus is only known to be carried by coldblooded animals the lake would have had to be infected by a fisherman. It could have been done by either dumping or using infected bait, infected fish or having in their possession a live well with both of the above. The only way it seems that VHS will spread further inland to unconnected waters is by our own irresponsibility.

The Unknown

Researchers don't know how many areas might already be affected. Diseases may lay dormant for a long period before showing themselves. The Budd Lake incident could have been escalated by a toxic algae bloom and an unknown odd discharge which stressed the fish, allowing the virus to invade. In more healthy environments the disease may be a lot less likely to have any affect on the fish, making it hard to monitor and track.

Scientists don't know if fish containing the virus can actually recover after becoming sick. They are uncertain how this virus will interact with other viruses which may create an even bigger set of problems. They don't know how much of the populations will be affected, the ages which are most susceptible, or what species, if not all eggs could be attacked. They don't know how long the virus can lay dormant without any symptoms and what conditions might be present to allow the virus to eventually sicken the fish. Gary Whelan, fisheries production manager with the DNR probably put it best by saying "We spend years and billions of dollars trying to figure out diseases for humans, it isn't any different for fish and wildlife, but once a disease takes a foothold we will have it forever."

What Is Known

VHS (Viral hemorrhagic septicemia) has been nicknamed the "Ebola of fish" because of how the virus simulates the deadly human killing disease in Africa. The real name of the genetic type found in the Great Lakes is (VHSv IVb). The virus, in common terms, actually causes the fish to bleed to death and experts are saying this is the most serious threat to the Great Lakes fishery to date.

How many species of fish might be affected? So far only large die-offs attributed to VHS have been found in muskies, gizzard shad, freshwater drum, yellow perch, round gobies and black crappie.

Which fish are carriers but less likely to die?

Thirty-two species to date have been tested positive for the VHS virus with only a few showing the affects of large die-offs. Common warm water game fish such as bluegill, pumpkinseed, bullhead, channel catfish, Northern pike, rock bass, large mouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, whitefish and white bass have been found to be carriers with little to no affects. Cold water game fish such as chinook salmon, coho salmon, brown trout, pink salmon and rainbow trout have also tested positive as carriers, which is why using spawn this fall will most likely be highly regulated.

Salmon might be the biggest concern to biologists as a carrier of the disease since they not only cover a lot of open water, they also migrate inland, and their roe is collected and used as bait.

Angler Participation

We are now the eyes and ears for our DNR biologists and believe me, they are listening. On average 5-8 calls per day are coming across the Lansing office's lines reporting new outbreaks of the virus from anglers. The DNR fisheries website has a form which an angler can fill out or call (517) 373-1280 to report suspected fish caught with the virus or major die-offs witnessed.

The symptoms are quite obvious, external red blotches in the scales or bleeding signs in the eyes. Internally you may see bleeding in the swim bladder and excess blood in the flesh. Anglers are asked to put suspected fish on ice and contact the DNR.

Another Warning

An outbreak of tapeworm has been found in walleye concentrated in the Detroit River. The outbreak has been attributed to the walleye's change in diet due to the lack of alewives. Tapeworms are obvious when cleaning your fish. Just take caution by thoroughly cooking all Great Lakes fish. And remember, fishing is fun!

Have an interesting story or

know someone interesting that would make a good "Dear Fish Diary" candidate? Woods-n-Water News columnist Ron St. Germain can be reached by e-mailing " or calling (517) 323-8148.n

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