Exotic Policy

An IJC White Paper
On Policies for the Prevention of
The Invasion of the Great Lakes by Exotic Organisms

July 15, 1999
Eric Reeves

§ 5. Baitfish: The little fish that got away

Baitfish dealers are an even more diffuse and varied group than aquaculturists, although the two categories overlap, and the regulatory challenge is even greater in this area. A few general surveys of baitfish activities in the general region have been conducted.(233) Researchers from Michigan and Minnesota Sea Grant are currently conducting an in-depth field study of baitfish, with the cooperation of some industry interests, in order to (1) better evaluate the nature of the exotics threat, and (2) identify specific points where government or industry interdiction of exotic transfers might be effective.(234) Their final report is not yet available. But we do already know that a substantial amount of live bait is moved around the Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario, across watersheds, and that it is subject to very little control.

Annual sales of both wild and cultured baitfish in the US and Canada are worth something in the area of one billion dollars per year.(235) "Although the exact size of the industry is not known, nearly all states east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as Arizona and California west of the continental divide, have some bait farming. Species of fish and shellfish produced include: golden shiners, fathead minnows, goldfish, carpsuckers, bluntnose minnows, tilapia, suckers, and crayfish."(236) Most harvesters and dealers are small-scale independent operators,(237) but they are quite capable of transporting live fish for long distances with relatively simple technology such as oxygen tanks, aerators, and live wells.(238) Bait may be collected out of either public waters, with permits from the local conservation agencies, or from private ponds specially maintained for that purpose. What bait is used, where it comes from, and where it goes, may vary during the season, especially in the Great Lakes region.

Those dealers making an ongoing business out of it do have a natural interest in avoiding the collection of non-target organisms and parasites. It is common to use nets or screens of specific mesh size to filter out unwanted fish, and some of the dealers make a practice of transporting their own clean water to the harvest site in order to avoid picking up veligers and microorganisms.(239) It is not clear how common these preventative measures are, or what their true level of effectiveness is.

Historically, out of an estimated 168 native species that have become established outside their range within the US, it is believed that about 58 (35%) were introduced as bait or forage fish.(240) In addition, as in the case of aquaculture, baitfish can be a source for diseases.(241) Researchers conducting actual sampling of bait have found that "a substantial number of species were used outside their native distributions," including many that are illegal to import, and that many fishers routinely dump their unused live bait in the non-native waters.(242) Other researchers studying the transfer of bait from the Mississippi River Basin to the Hudson Bay Basin came up with the following calculations, which can be applied with even greater force to transfer of bait into the Great Lakes:

Specifically, we estimate the probability of a single angler on a single angling day in the Hudson Bay releasing live bait from the Mississippi River basin to be 1.2/100. But when the cumulative number of trials - 19 million angler days per year - was considered, the estimated probability of bait bucket transfer occurring one, 100, or even 10,000 times in 1 year approaches 1.0. In light of these findings, we conclude that drastic policy measures would have to be undertaken to reduce anglers' potential for contributing to the dispersal of aquatic species.(243)
All of the Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario have statutes authorizing their conservation agencies to prohibit such introductions. But the enforcement problems can be overwhelming. The following comment from one state administrator in the Great Lakes provides, as he puts it, a good "reality check" on the problem of regulating baitfish. It also indicates the manner in which transportation of baitfish for use in local aquaculture as well as angling complicates the nature of the problem:

Virtually all of the baitfish used both for angling bait and for feeding predator fish in culture in Illinois are produced out of state. I can't begin to estimate how many hundred million fish…. We have neither the personnel nor the resources to institute a meaningful inspection program for ANS contained in these shipments and have the fish arrive at their destination alive. We have one fish hatchery in our system which receives 50,000,000 fathead minnows annually just to feed musky fingerling and bass broodstock. This is not to mention the hundreds of small mom and pop bait shops which receive small shipments weekly. We can and do request that producers spot-check their shipments for unwanted species. We do not have a practical, enforceable way of requiring it.(244)

Further insight may be provided by the Sea Grant study mentioned above. But it seems obvious from the basic structure of the industry that any effective controls would have to be put in place at the source (at the location of major harvesting waters) rather than in the stream of transportation (during which time for inspections, as well as opportunities, are rather limited) or at the receiving point (at hundreds of small shops). This, in turn, requires a high level of coordination between the conservation authorities of the receiving jurisdiction and the conservation or agriculture authorities of the sending jurisdiction.