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Deadly Fish Virus Spreads in New York State

A deadly, fast-spreading virus is affecting freshwater fish in several lakes in New York state. In the past, the fish virus had a catastrophic impact on fish populations in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Pacific northwest. Victoria Cavaliere reports from VOA's New York bureau that state officials are examining the environmental and economic impact of the virus.

Hemorrhagic septicemia virus, or VHS, causes internal bleeding in affected fish but poses no danger to humans. The disease spreads rapidly among fish by direct contact. There are four strains of the virus: three found in Europe and one in North America.

VHS has long been a problem among commercially raised rainbow trout in Europe. The U.S. Geological Survey says millions of trout have died in the past decade, costing Europe's fishing industry about 40-million dollars a year.

Outbreaks have also affected salmon and herring in Japan and other parts of the Pacific, including the U.S. northwest.

Doug Stang is chief of New York State's Bureau of Fisheries. He explains why VHS is spreading widely and rapidly. "One of the troubling things with regard to VHS is that there are many fish species and fish families that VHS impacts. VHS has been found to affect worldwide 37 different species. We don't think that there are any species or families that are not susceptible to VHS," he said.

In 2005, scientists were alarmed to find that VHS had moved from its normal marine habitat into the fresh water fish populations of the U.S. Great Lake regions.

Last year, a mutated strain of the virus killed millions of fish in four of the five so-called Great Lakes, located on or near the U.S. -- Canadian border. The Great Lakes are the largest group of fresh water lakes on Earth. This year, the virus has also been detected in the Finger Lakes region, a popular tourist destination in New York state.

Scientists have discovered the fish virus in at least 19 of the 150 fish species in New York lakes and rivers. It has devastated six species. Stang says containing the disease means minimizing the movement of live fish and restricting fishermen (anglers), and that takes time and money.

"There are going to be impacts on anglers, there's also some impacts on the aquaculture industry in New York and throughout the Midwest. People are not going to be able to do what they've done for years and years and years," he said.

Stang says there is no end in sight to the new restrictions on angling and sport fishing, an estimated one-point-two billion dollar industry in New York state. State and federal laws also require new surveillance and testing. In the Great Lakes region, facilities that produce fish and eggs must now screen their catch for VHS and certify that it is not present. Anglers say all this adds to the cost of selling and producing fish and eggs.

There is some good news. Stang says over time, fish build up a resistance to VHS, and eventually the virus may run its course.