Georgian Bay Sport Fishing in Trouble?
By Al Taylor
For some years now, sport fishing in Georgian Bay has been in decline. Some say the Bay never recovered from over-fishing at the turn of the century, others say commercial fishing boats or the cormorants are to blame. Perhaps invading species such as the zebra mussel and the spiny water flea have disrupted the food chain. With 138 new invading species in the Great Lakes, there is no question that Georgian Bay fish are under stress.
Scores of fishermen used to fish off the marina at the 17th concession, and around Thunder Bay and Christian Island, most boasting a salmon or two. No more. More often than not the live wells are empty after hours of down rigging. Where are all the fish?
The Latest Threat
Now, there is a new threat, called VHS or viral hemorrhagic septicemia, in Georgian Bay, and it’s deadly. It attacks 16 species of sport fish, including bass, salmon, trout, rock bass, and muskie with a vengeance.
Viral hemorrhagic septicemia was first identified in Ontario in 2005 after a die-off of fish in the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario.
Although not all fish are hurt by the virus, the picture of those that are is not pretty. It destroys the lining of blood vessels, causing internal bleeding; infected fish often have bulging eyes with bleeding around the sockets, pale gills, distended, fluid-filled bellies and corkscrew swimming behaviour.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada says it is safe to handle infected fish, even if they are dying or dead, but it doesn’t recommend eating them. Experts say that with the virus firmly established, it cannot be eradicated. Government agencies are urging anglers not to move live fish around from one part of the Great Lakes to another, in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease.
How Serious Is It?
The virus doesn’t harm humans or birds but has had an effect akin to a piscine plague, killing fish from Lake Erie to the St. Lawrence River. The toll is in the tens of thousands, and perhaps far higher. There could be serious ecological, social and economic impacts if the virus continues to spread to Ontario’s inland waters.
Scientists are dismayed that yet another foreign species is becoming established here, and one with such a worrisome characteristic. VHS is one of the few invaders that is a pathogenic organism, or one that causes an infectious disease. Scientists simply don’t know enough about the virus to determine how big a swath it will cut into fish stocks.
Another big worry is that VHS could spread throughout the inland waters of North America.
I talked with John Cooper, spokesman for the MNR in London, Ontario, about VHS this April. He told me that the VHS was first noticed around 2003 on the Canadian East Coast; shortly after, in the Great Lakes. He further said that not much is known about this pathogen and that it’s now likely part of the of the Georgian Bay ecosystem. This time of the year, April, when heavy concentrations of fish are spawning the disease could be transmitted to thousands of fish, and the effects will not be known until later this spring.
I recently watched a clip on TV where rainbow trout eggs were disinfected in an attempt to have disease free fish released back into Georgian Bay for future healthy stocks. Let’s pray that it will be successful
What Can You Do?
The MNR urges fisherman to take the following precautions:
• use only locally harvested baitfish
• remove all mud and aquatic plants from all gear and boat motors when cleaning fish, before fishing in another lake
• ensure that the waste products do not contact other waterways
• dispose of fish internal organs, skin, scales, heads and tails in the garbage
• disinfect live wells with bleach.
For further information and facts go to http://www.mnr.gov.on.ca and search “VHS” or phone 1-800-667-1940