Feds set fish shipment rules for Great Lakes

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Federal regulators trying to contain a fish-killing virus in the Great Lakes region have issued rules for shipping live fish across state lines that some wholesalers say will be financially devastating.

The requirements were announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. They require testing and inspections of 28 farm-raised and live bait species susceptible to viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS.

The virus, fatal for fish but not believed to affect humans, has caused die-offs in all the Great Lakes except Lake Superior the past couple of years. It also has shown up in some inland waterways. Authorities say it endangers the region's billion-dollar sport and commercial fisheries.

Most of the eight states on the Great Lakes have taken steps to prevent the disease from spreading. APHIS, the federal agency, issued an emergency order on interstate fish transport in 2006 and has modified it several times while developing the interim rules released this week.

They take effect Nov. 10. APHIS said it would accept public comments until then and develop a final set of regulations. No deadline for its completion has been set.

"There will still be a risk of spreading VHS but we tried to reduce it as much as possible while still allowing commerce," said Gary Egrie, an APHIS veterinary medical officer for aquaculture programs.

But some suppliers of live fish said the complex package was regulatory overkill that would eat away their profits on test and inspection fees without solving the problem.

"They are potentially destroying the Great Lakes aquaculture industry," said Dan Vogler, a board member of the Michigan Aquaculture Association and operator of a Wexford County fish farm that ships live rainbow trout to several states.

Among fish covered by the rules are brown and rainbow trout, chinook salmon, walleye, yellow perch, lake whitefish and muskellunge, as well as bait species such as emerald and spottail shiners.

Vogler, who draws water from a creek and a well, said the rules would cost him about $37,000 a year, leaving no profit.

Ben Gollon, a live bait wholesaler in Stevens Point, Wis., said he expected to spend $60,000 this year to comply.

"It's outrageous," he said.

Despite the industry complaints, the new regulations don't appear to differ significantly from the previous federal order, said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

While describing federal and state containment efforts as "appropriate," he said governments had not done enough to prevent further introductions of invasive organisms. Scientists believe VHS was among many species brought to the region inside ballast tanks of oceangoing ships.

"It's crucial to keep them out in the first place," Gaden said. "Once they're here, spreading and movement around is all but inevitable."

On the Net:
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov

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