Annual spring die-off of Lake Erie fish causing concern

May 24, 2023 | Ottawa Outdoors | 0 comments


In recent weeks a lot of folks have noticed a plethora of dead fish washing up on the shorelines around Western Lake Erie, and in East Harbor and West Harbor. Worried that something might be killing our beloved yellow perch or walleye, readers have been asking for answers.

The expert on all things piscatorial on Lake Erie is Travis Hartman, the local Lake Erie Fisheries Administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Don’t worry, said Hartman. It’s become an annual event for a couple of reasons. For many years we’ve seen gizzard shad die off in spring. The shad are especially susceptible to a shallow water fluctuation in temperature in spring and sometimes in fall. People seldom see them alive, since they don’t feed on other fish, and are not caught by anglers.

What about the panfish — bluegills, crappie and bass — that sometimes belly up in spring?

In recent years viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) has been killing Lake Erie fish in chilly spring waters. The symptoms of VHS are bloated stomachs, bulging eyes, open sores and bloody internal organs.

As the waters warm, the VHS kill fades.

Hartman says the warm waters of the harbors and near-shore Lake Erie brings about a temperature window that can be fatal to some fish stressed by the spawning season. Worried about favorites like walleye and yellow perch? Hartman said spawning walleye in the Maumee River were tested by ODOW fisheries biologists, and while most walleye were found to have VHS, but there has been very little mortality among the massive schools of walleye.

The people who eat walleye or any other local fish won’t get VHS.

VHS was first seen in the Great Lakes in 2005 when thousands of muskies died in Lake St. Clair and elsewhere. Some trophy-size muskie carcasses were found floating in the lake and washed up on island coastlines.

In 2006, the virus killed thousands of fish, including yellow perch, freshwater drum (sheepshead), gizzard shad, round gobies, walleyes and others. This outbreak prompted the U.S.

Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Disease Inspection Service to ban interstate shipments of emerald shiner minnows, causing shortages of the favorite bait relied on during the yellow perch season.

It has been relatively quiet most years since, except for noticeable flareups in 2011 and 2017. The virus is active when water temperatures range from 39 to 54 degrees. Peak mortality occurs at 39-41 degrees. Deaths rarely occur after water temperatures reach 59.

By the way, the Lake Erie water temperature off Toledo this week has risen to 59 degrees.

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