Four national parks and a Native American tribe, all based on the shores of Lake Superior, have banded together to protect Gitche Gumee’s fish from the highly contagious and lethal fish disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS).
The disease, which originated in the Canadian Maritime provinces, was discovered in the Great Lakes in 2003 and has the ability to infect 28 species of Lake Superior fish, including several important game fish, such as whitefish, steelhead, coho, walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, Chinook salmon, brown trout, muskies and northern pike. The disease has already infected fish in all the Great Lakes except Lake Superior and has resulted in several large fish kills. If the disease does reach Lake Superior’s cold waters, it could likely thrive there because the virus can live longer outside a host in cold water and it replicates more rapidly in cold water, according to Lora Loope, an aquatic biologist with Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Biologists are not certain how the virus was transported to the Great Lakes, but ballast water and bait buckets are two of the highest risk vectors. The disease spreads between fish through “urine, feces and reproductive fluids released into the water and through the eating of other infected fish,” according to a statement by the National Park Service. The disease does not affect humans.
The VHS prevention plan includes 16 recommendations, including restricting the use of live bait that is susceptible to VHS and banning the dumping of ballast water in national park waters. An intensive public information campaign will also be a key piece of the strategy.
“The most important thing for boaters to do is drain and dry live wells and bilge tanks and engine cooling lines,” Loope says. “Fishermen should be very careful not to transfer bait fish from one lake to another.”
Given the disease potency, boaters and fishermen are strongly urged to study and follow the recommendations. Download a copy of the report at nps.gov/piro.
The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa joined with superintendents of Isle Royale National Park, Apostle Islands Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Grand Portage National Monument to write the VHS plan.