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Fast-moving fish disease could take heavy toll

How much is a walleye worth? Or a lake trout? Or a sturgeon?

Don Schreiner has an idea. And his dollars-and-cents valuation of gamefish casts the VHS fish disease problem in a new light.

VHS is short for viral hemorrhagic septicemia, the latest and possibly greatest threat to Great Lakes gamefish. Already the fast-acting fish disease has infected 27 species in the eastern Great Lakes. It has moved as close as Lake Huron, just last month, and experts believe it's in Lake Michigan.

Schreiner, who is Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, wants people to know the cost of the VHS threat. So, using dollar values assigned to various fish by the American Fisheries Society, Schreiner has projected the cost of a VHS die-off in Minnesota and Wisconsin waters of Lake Superior.

If those waters were to lose just 1 percent of their gamefish, the loss would cost $1 million a year, Schreiner said. At a 10 percent loss, the cost is more than $10 million per year.

"I think that (amount of loss) is pretty reasonable to assume," Schreiner said. "I don't expect every species to die at the same rate. Some species could die at less than 1 percent. Some could die at 50 percent."

His estimates are conservative, he said.

An adult walleye, 14 to 16 inches long, is worth $35, according to the American Fisheries Society. A 24-inch lake trout, $35. A St. Louis River muskie weighing 15 pounds, $150. And sturgeon, $600 for just a 5-pound fish.

The American Fisheries Society sets those values for use in legal settlements involving fish die-offs. The amounts are based on hatchery production costs as well as on the economic value of a fishery to its users and its nonusers.

Scientists have called for immediate changes in federal regulations to mandate sterilization of ballast water in ships moving into and within the Great Lakes. That is unlikely to happen, port and regulatory officials say, because no system has been developed or proven, and it would take years to retrofit lakers and salties with the new technology.

Although VHS has not been found in Lake Superior or the St. Louis River, biologists already are weighing decisions as if the disease might be here.

"There's a good chance we might not be taking (walleye) eggs in the St. Louis River, even though it (VHS) isn't here - just because of the threat of it," Schreiner said.

Those eggs are used to raise walleyes stocked in inland lakes, and the DNR doesn't want to risk spreading VHS to those lakes.

If VHS is found at the French River Coldwater Hatchery, Kamloops rainbow trout raised there would not be used to stock inland lakes, and Kamloops rainbows and steelhead might no longer be stocked in Lake Superior, Schreiner said.

While it's reasonable to put a dollar figure on potential fish die-offs, it's sad that it has come to that. You wouldn't think we'd have to hang a price tag on a lake trout to acknowledge that it's worth protecting.