Environmentalists sue over fish disease

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Environmentalists in the United States have started legal proceedings against governmental agencies for doing little to prevent the spread of a disease which is deadly to fish throughout the Great Lakes.

The ~Save Lake Superior , ~Trout Unlimited and ~Izaak Walton League of Duluth and Minnesota filed their lawsuit two weeks ago against the US Coastguard, the Department of Agriculture and the health inspectorate as well as other agencies to force them to act to prevent the spread of Viral Haemorrhagic Septicaemia (VHS) into Lake Superior.

The virus affects a wide range of freshwater fish causing skin lesions, anaemia and haemorrhaging in affected fish and often death due to organ failure. Mortality rates vary between species and can be anything from 2-100%.

Transmission occurs through water or also via predation of infected fish. The disease was first reported in the Great Lakes in 2003 but is now in all Great Lakes except Superior.

The legal action focuses on preventing the transportation of fish that could potentially carry the virus or other diseases and also preventing cargo ships from discharging their ballast water.

Whilst legislation already exists to prevent either of these things from happening, the law suit seeks an injunction to make federal agencies enforce these regulations.

As an illustration, more than 5 billion gallons of water from other areas was dumped into Duluth Superior Harbour in 2005.

Curt Leitz from the Izaak Walton League is quoted in the Star Tribune as saying "Going to court is not something that any of the groups involved here does lightly ... we have tried everything else. The epidemic has risen to the level of a federal emergency."

The federal agencies would not comment, although the US coastguard was keen to point out how difficult it is establish boundaries for the areas of concern especially as these boundaries would have to change frequently due to the natural movement of organisms and the changing environmental conditions.

"Who's going to declare these areas? What's the rationale that's going to be used?" Coast Guard Environmental Protection Specialist Richard Everett asked.

"We're not a biological resources agency, so we don't have the expertise to go out and evaluate fishery diseases ... and make independent determinations."

At the same time, an emergency plan for prevention of the spread of VHS into Lake Superior produced by the National Parks states:

There is the potential for catastrophic loss of species important for recreational, subsistence and commercial fishing opportunities, as well as potential impacts to prey species that could affect higher levels of the food web within Lake Superior.

Common fish affected by VHS in the Great Lakes include Lake trout, Steelhead trout, Chinook salmon, Bluegills, Yellow perch, gobies, Emerald shiners, Muskies, Whitefish, and Walleye. Unlike the European variant of this disease, Rainbow trout are not severely affected by it.