Quebec Fisheries Officials Brace for Spread of Deadly Fish Virus

The Quebec Natural Resources and Wildlife Department is proposing a province-wide ban on the use of live minnows as bait, insisting that either frozen minnows or artificial bait must replace live minnows to prevent the spread of a deadly fish virus, The Vancouver Sun reports.

Posing no risks to humans, viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) causes hemorrhaging of internal organs and tissues, leading to death, in the 50 species of fish. As an infected fish's body decomposes, the virus is released and can spread. Biologists say fish die-offs can go unnoticed but typically take place in the spring, after spawning.

Since VHS was first identified in farmed fish in Europe in the 1950's, the virus has gone global, reaching the Great Lakes by 2005. Fish kills numbered in the tens of thousands, The Vancouver Sun estimates, including 2006 die-offs of yellow perch in Lake Erie and muskellunge in the St. Lawrence River. In the past five years, the virus has infected bass in New York's Finger Lakes, as well as salmon, muskie, walleye and various minnow species. In 2011, VHS was found in Ontario's Lake Simcoe, about 100 miles southwest of the Ontario/Quebec border. Ontario's governmental response was a crackdown on the transport of minnows, which are known to transmit the disease, from lake to lake.

VHS has yet to be detected in Quebec waters. From 2007 to 2009, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency teamed with the Quebec and Ontario Natural Resources Departments to monitor Ontario and Quebec fish populations for the presence of VHS. According to The Vancouver Sun, the two-year report states there were no cases of VHS found in the wild fish.

As part of preventative measures, however, Quebec's 2011 proposal goes a step further than Ontario's plan, suggesting a ban on live minnows. Anglers are expected to be replace their live minnows with frozen minnows in the fall and winter and artificial bait in the spring and summer. Freezing minnows can kill more than 90 percent of the virus, and in many regions, such as the northern lakes, frozen bait is already obligatory as part of efforts to prevent the spread of more aggressive southern fish, such as perch.

Critics of Quebec's proposed ban fear it walks a thin line between preventing a potential VHS catastrophe and destroying its own $2.5-billion-a-year recreational fishing industry before VHS even worms its way into Quebec waters. Local business owners are voicing their preference for more stringent enforcement of existing laws against minnow transport, as well as heftier fines for fishermen who break the rules, putting favorite fishing spots at risk.

"We already have rules in the books and I stand behind them, but let's see some enforcement before you shut me down," urges minnow harvester Daniel Rondeau. "Do your job and enforce the laws and heavily fine those who break them."

Reflecting the frustration of small business owners like Rondeau, the Quebec Federation of Outfitters has circulated a petition against the ban; to date, the group has collected 6,000 signatures against the proposed ban, and has garnered the support of the Quebec Federation of Hunters and Fishermen.