If you’ve fished a lot, chances are you’ve seen it:
A fisherman decides to call it a day, and he opens his bait bucket and sets free all the minnows remaining in it.
In so doing, he might have broken the law.
If the minnows in his bucket came from the same waters he fished, no problem. If they came from somewhere else, it could be a big problem.
West Virginia law prohibits transferring fish of any kind from one body of water to another. Violators could be fined up to $300 and/or serve up to 100 days in jail. Jeff Hansbarger, a fisheries biologist for the Division of Natural Resources, said anglers moving fish has caused problems in every major watershed of the state.
“It has the potential to spread fish diseases, to introduce unwanted predators, and to bring in non-native species that out-compete native fish,” he explained.
Fisheries officials suspect unauthorized transfers for a sharp decline in the New River’s native walleye population, for the spread of largemouth bass virus and viral hemorrhagic septicemia into state waters, and for the introduction of undesirable non-native species.
“When I worked in [the DNR’s Beckley-based district], I really got my eyes opened,” Hansbarger said. “I couldn’t believe how many non-native fish had been introduced. A lot of them came from the Tennessee River watershed, and a lot of those were introduced by out-of-state fishermen bringing their own bait to fish the New.”
The New’s non-native bait species include alewives, Roanoke darters, whitetail shiners and swallowtail shiners. Of those, alewives arguably have had the greatest impact.
“Alewives are known to prey on the eggs of other fish species,” Hansbarger said. “After alewives were introduced into the New, the walleye fishery went into decline. The belief is that egg predation by alewives was responsible for that decline.”
Non-native species have been in the news lately, mainly due to problems created in parts of the country outside the Mountain State.
The voracious northern snakehead, an Asian species, has become established in the Potomac River tributaries of Maryland and Virginia. Efforts to eradicate it have failed.
And in states that border the lower Ohio and central Mississippi rivers, biologists are pulling their collective hair out in an attempt to control Asian carp. Used by fish farmers to keep catfish ponds clean, two species of carp escaped into the Mississippi and have come to dominate ecosystems in the Illinois, Wabash and lower Ohio rivers.
Isolated specimens of one species, the bighead carp, have been found in the portion of the Ohio that borders West Virginia. Sampling of DNA in the Ohio’s water has detected genetic material from the other species, silver carp, even farther upstream than the bigheads were confirmed.
To address the threat posed by such species, the West Virginia Legislature has amended the state’s law governing the importation of non-native species. It is now illegal to possess live bighead carp, silver carp, black carp, grass carp or northern snakeheads.
“The law doesn’t apply to dead fish, only to live ones,” explained Bret Preston, the DNR’s head of warm-water fisheries. “The idea is to discourage people from attempting to get those species established here in West Virginia.”
The law also prohibits people from moving native fish from one body of water to another within the state. Hansbarger said it not only keeps certain species from invading others’ habitat, it also helps prevent diseases from spreading.
“I know it’s tempting to catch a few bass, put them in your boat’s live well, take them back home and stock them in the local creek, but when you do that, you could be spreading largemouth bass virus to your neck of the woods,” he added.
Such transfers are considered to be unauthorized stockings. The law says angler-caught fish must be released into the same waters from which they were caught. The lone exception is for fishermen who take fish home to stock their own private ponds.
DNR officials acknowledge that such “ad hoc” stockings have, on occasion, created successful fisheries where none existed before. One of the DNR’s special-regulation trout waters, Buffalo Creek of the New River, didn’t harbor even a single trout until a handful of anglers began catching fish from other streams and transferring them there. The DNR only imposed regulations on the stream after the fishery was well established.
“Still, stockings like that aren’t a good idea,” Hansbarger said. “Truth be told, if biologists had known then what we know now, some of the fish we now consider highly desirable might never have been stocked here.
“For example, smallmouth bass, which were originally found only in the Ohio watershed, might never have become established in the Potomac and its tributaries. Brown trout, which are native to Europe, might never have been stocked anywhere in the state. Same goes for rainbow trout, which are native to rivers west of the [U.S.] continental divide.”
Businesses, fishing clubs and other entities are allowed to purchase hatchery-raised bass or trout and stock them in state waters, but only if the fish came from inside the state or if they are obtained from hatcheries certified to be disease-free.
Even then, there’s no guarantee. Hansbarger said agency officials from several states recently placed a moratorium on importing muskellunge, smallmouth bass and several other fish species from the Great Lakes area after VHS, or viral hemorrhagic septicemia, was traced back to Great Lakes sources.
“It’s best to err on the side of caution,” Hansbarger added. “Once diseases get established in fisheries, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. The same goes for non-native fish species. The best way to make sure they don’t get established is to inform and educate fishermen so they don’t create a problem, knowingly or unknowingly.”