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Lake Macatawa fish dying off due to viral hemorrhagic septicemia

Dead and dying fish in Lake Macatawa.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Dead and dying fish in Lake Macatawa.

Ottawa County’s Lake Macatawa is seeing a surge in fish deaths near Holland.

“It kind of goes away for a few years and the pops its head up again to let us know its still here and it’s one that we’re on guard for.”

In mid-April, reports of large numbers of dead and dying fish near the outlet channel of Lake Macatawa began coming in through the DNR’s Eyes in the Field online reporting app. After specimens were collected and analysis was completed at Michigan State University’s Aquatic Animal Health Lab, it was determined that the fish died of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS.

Assistant Chief of the DNR’s Fisheries Division Ed Eisch says the virus was introduced to the Great Lakes region in the mid-2000’s, though they’re not exactly sure how.

“We kind of suspect that it came in with ballast water, so it could’ve come with fish that were in the ballast water or it could’ve just been in the water itself.”

Ballast water is held in tanks and cargo holds of ships.

Eisch says it’s often hard to tell what causes a VHS outbreak, but the current outbreak seems to only be affecting freshwater drum, gizzard shad and sunfish. Given the rising water temperatures, the current outbreak in Lake Macatawa is probably winding down.

Eisch says the best way to prevent the spread of VHS is to disinfect all fishing gear and boats that have come into contact with infected water.

“Make sure that there’s no bilge water, no water in their live wells that may have been picked up and any organic material that might be on the trailer or boat is removed as they leave that water.”

VHS is not harmful to humans or pets.

Dave joined WGVU Public Media in November of 2023 after eighteen years as a Michigan Association of Broadcasters Emmy-nominated photojournalist and editor at Grand Rapids' WOOD TV8 and three years at WEYI TV25 in Flint, Michigan. As a General Assignment Reporter, Dave covers daily news and community events all over West Michigan.
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