Published April 13, 2010, 10:57 AM

VHS found near Apostle Islands

The fish-killing disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia has infiltrated Lake Superior, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported today.

By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

The fish-killing viral hemorrhagic septicemia disease has been found in a lake herring netted off the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported today.

It’s the third confirmed discovery of the virus in Lake Superior after announcements in January that fish from the Twin Ports harbor and near Whitefish Bay in Michigan had traces of the disease.

“We now know that without a doubt, VHS is present in Lake Superior and thus in all five Great Lakes,” said Mike Staggs, Wisconsin fisheries director.

Little or nothing can be done to stop the disease from spreading in Lake Superior or from killing fish, but officials said they can work with anglers and boaters to slow VHS’s spread to other waters.

A leading national expert has said some fish, such as trout and salmon, appear to be more resistant to VHS while others, such as musky, are especially vulnerable. While it’s unclear if VHS, considered a cold-water virus, will do damage in the open waters of Lake Superior, it is expected to have an impact near shore and in harbors and bays, including the Twin Ports’ St. Louis River estuary.

The most recent finding came from lake herring collected in mid-December 2009 by a commercial fisherman working cooperatively with the state and federal agencies.

So far, no major fish die-offs have been reported from the disease, and Staggs said biologists remain “encouraged that no big fish kills have been reported in lake.”

VHS is not a human health risk but can infect dozens of native fish species and cause them to bleed to death.

“This is definitely a recent invader,” Staggs said. “We don’t think it’s widespread yet in the lake. It’s very important that we all be vigilant and take [the required] steps that will help prevent spreading VHS and other fish diseases and aquatic invaders to new waters.”

VHS is harmless to people but often lethal to fish. It can cause bleeding in fish tissue, including internal organs. Sick fish often appear listless, have bulging eyes, swim in circles or hang just below the surface.

VHS first was found in the eastern Great Lakes in 2005. As of 2009 it had been confirmed as far west as Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. It has been found in 28 Great Lakes species and killed fish from more than a dozen species. In Lake Huron, VHS was found in whitefish, walleye and Chinook salmon. Farther east, it has killed musky, perch, drum and emerald shiners, in some cases by the thousands.

Supporters of stronger regulations to thwart invasive species say VHS is only the latest of 180 species to invade the lakes.

Learn more at the Wisconsin DNR Web site.