Feb
08
2010

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia: a fish infected with the virus
Viral hemorrhagic septicemia: a fish infected with the virusCourtesy Dr. Mohamed Faisal
No… not a rock bass (even though it has a red iris). Nor any normal walleye you might be lucky enough to snag. This fish you might not even need to actually catch. It could be floating next to the boat along with most of the other fish in your favorite river, lake, or reservoir. That is if the dreaded VHS continues to spread and strike us deep in the land of 10,000 lakes. Move over zebra mussel, Eurasian milfoil, and the Asian carp, VHS is viral hemorrhagic septicemia and the latest migrant in the spread of invasive species.

Viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) is a virus. It is a small invading critter that can be quite infectious. Not all fish will show obvious signs. Those that do can exhibit hemorrhaging in the eyes, around the fins, or on the gills. Bloating, erratic behavior, bulging eyes, or even lesions could also be present. On the inside, the disease will attack the liver, kidneys, spleen or swim bladder. Those fish that do survive can still be infected and spread the disease. Blood, urine and even the reproductive fluids of infected fish can pass on the virus. Larger fish can get it from eating smaller infected fish.
Fish kill: sights like this are all the more possible with the new viral invader
Fish kill: sights like this are all the more possible with the new viral invaderCourtesy JoelDeluxe

The disease can be wide spread and is known to affect up to 28 different species of fish. Some of the fish kills have numbered in the tens of thousands. Many of our popular game fish are susceptible. Walleye, Northern Pike, Muskellunge, Smallmouth Bass, Perch, Crappies, Bluegills, Sheepshead and many others are on the list. Even some species of shiner bait fish have been found to carry the disease. While deadly for many fish, the disease is of no harm to humans. The warmth of our bodies is too hot for the virus to survive.

The virus has been known for many decades, but until recently was mainly a scourge of European fish farms. Viral hemorrhagic septicemia was first detected in American coastal waters in 1988, among the salmon populations of the Pacific Northwest. Then in 2005, tested fish showed up positive between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and were confirmed in samples harvested two years earlier. Now, local news just recently reported on a Cornell study that found VHS diseased fish in the bay waters of the Duluth-Superior harbor on the western edges of Lake Superior. Make no mistake… the ‘bleeding fish’ disease is here at our doorstep.

Guests of the inland waterways will be reminded to be vigilant in safe boating and fishing practices by local resource managers. Be mindful not to transport fish, plants, or bait from one water body to another. Keep those live-wells empty, and dry or rinse that boat! It will fall upon all of us to remain vigilant. Let’s not allow this disease to become a crippling blow to our native fisheries. If we do, it is possible that we’ll witness many seasons of massive fish kills.

More good VHS information:
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources

Univ. of Wisconsin Sea Grant

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