Wisconsin authorities in the US will be anxiously awaiting reports later this week on whether fish in Lake Winnebago have been infected by the deadly viral hemorrhagic septicemia.
Officials from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) confirmed that two fish from an adjoining smaller lake had been infected with the virus and ordered closure of the lock that separates Lake Winnebago from the smaller one.
Little Lake Butte des Morts' is the first occurrence of the virus in Wisconsin's inland waters. The state is now testing suspect fish from Winnebago.
The virus has already killed thousands of fish in the Great Lakes, a group of five large lakes in North America on the Canada-United States border. They are the largest group of fresh water lakes on Earth.
If tests confirm the virus in Lake Winnebago, keeping the lock closed won't do any good. It will already be too late.
"If the disease is in Lake Winnebago, then there is nothing to be gained by having the lock closed," DNR Fisheries Director Mike Staggs said Sunday. If the tests are negative, however, the lock could remain closed for as long as a month. "We don't generally declare the sample doesn't have the virus until we've waited 30 days or so."
The virus shows up in infected waters as they warm in the spring. It debuted in the Great Lakes in 2005. The virus afflicts more than 25 confirmed species of fish, but is apparently harmless to humans. Infected fish bleed to death. There is no known treatment for either the fish or the infested body of water.
Fishing enthusiast Dick Koerner, Neenah, is worried about what the virus could mean to Lake Winnebago's vulnerable sturgeon population. He was at a meeting of anglers in Cable, Wis., Saturday when he heard the bad news about Little Lake Butte des Morts.
"My first thought was the sturgeon," Koerner said. "A female sturgeon doesn't spawn until she's about 25. It's 15 for a male. They're not a renewable resource like deer or geese. They may go down in population, but they'll make a comeback. If we over-harvest the sturgeon, or lose them to a disease of some sort, it could take 100 years to recover."
Staggs doesn't know how susceptible sturgeon are to the virus.
"The big problem we have is this disease is relatively unknown to these species of fish," Staggs said. "What we've seen in the eastern Great Lakes is large numbers of fish of a number of different species have died."
Koerner also wonders about the virus' economic impact.
Lake Winnebago, Lake Poygan, Lake Winneconne and Lake Butte des Morts make up the interconnected Lake Winnebago System. According to a University of Wisconsin-Extension survey, the system is worth $234 million to area businesses annually.
"A lot of people use Lake Winnebago," he said. "Hopefully, there will be a lot of attention paid to this."