As if mom-and-pop bait and tackle stores around the Great Lakes didn’t already have enough headaches with the vagaries of weather, competition from big-box retailers and the whims of fishermen, the federal government tossed another curve last fall by clamping down on transport of 37 fish species.
Responding to outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), which caused significant fish kills in Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair last year, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture set emergency rules designed to quarantine the Great Lakes states. The agency, the Animal and Health Inspection Services (APHIS), made it clear that restricting the sale of live fish and fish eggs coming out of the Great Lakes states is designed to protect the U.S. aquaculture industry.
Included on the list is an economically important baitfish, the emerald shiner, leaving bait-shop owners and wholesalers wondering who is looking out for their interests.
“The ban will have a major effect on every bait shop,” said Lesa Kaesberger, who operates two bait-and-tackle stores in Cleveland.
The order banning the movement of shiners across state lines promises to make them scarce where they can’t be caught locally. Bait shops on the southern shore of Lake Erie in the past have depended on getting shiners from suppliers around Buffalo, N.Y., but that avenue has been closed not only by the federal ban but buy stringent regulations put in place by the state of New York.
New York currently isn’t permitting the sale of minnows that haven’t been tested for VHS. Patricia Van Camp, who with her husband, Bill, runs bait wholesaler Big Catch Bait & Tackle in Buffalo, said state rules won’t allow Niagara River minnows to be sold for use as bait in the Niagara River without lab testing, an expensive process with limited availability.
The combination of state and federal regulations has shut down Big Catch’s trade with Ohio customers, which makes up about 80 percent of revenues, Van Camp said.
“We’re screwed,” she said.
Van Camp is among the bait dealers who are incensed that what she calls “the little guy” is being forced to pay a heavy toll for government inaction. The problem with VHS began, most observers believe, with ship ballast from ocean vessels.
Ray Petering, the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s executive administrator for fish management and research, said his agency has been trying to get the feds to relax their quarantine but without making much headway.
He sees little sense in stopping the transport of minnows from one end of Lake Erie to the other when VHS has been identified in both places.
After watching a series of invasives traced to ship ballast enter the Great Lakes watershed over the years, Petering figures the federal government needs to set rules for ocean vessels that ensure exotic creatures and plants stay out of the lakes.
“I haven’t heard them talking about addressing the source of the problem,” he said.
A combination of high demand and scarcity is expected to push up the price of emerald shiners, which are the bait of choice for both perch and perch fishermen. Demand for the shiners typically picks up around midsummer when the perch form huge schools that some anglers on lakes Erie, Michigan and Huron wait all year to get at.
This year, it appears likely some bait shops won’t be getting emerald shiners at all. Substitute baitfish, such as golden shiners and fathead minnows, undoubtedly will be brought north from growers in the Mississippi River basin. However, many anglers will choose not to fish if they can’t get native bait that catches perch.