Minnesota DNR oversight allows fish virus to enter state
The state agency charged with protecting Minnesota's multibillion-dollar fishing industry from diseases allowed a virus potentially dangerous to fish into the state last year.
Last May, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources mistakenly approved a shipment of 2,000 rainbow trout from Wisconsin to a rural Cloquet man who legally purchased them and put them into his private pond.
The pond owner, Curt Teberg, paid $3,600 for the trout and never expected they would cause him months of headaches.
Teberg said he stocked the fish into his elaborately designed fishing pond, which he uses to entertain stockholders and hold charitable fishing events. Teberg is best known as the manager of the $27 million Teberg Fund, a mutual fund based in Duluth.
Soon after the stocking, DNR officials told Teberg his trout came from a Wisconsin fish hatchery that had tested positive for a contagious fish virus called infectious pancreatic necrosis, or IPN, which had never been found in Minnesota.
The virus isn't dangerous to humans, but it can be fatal to trout and salmon.
Realizing their mistake, DNR officials told Teberg they would net and kill every trout in his pond. The agency spent $11,000 in taxpayer money to "depopulate" the pond, test the fish and bury many of them in Teberg's pasture.
Tests showed at least one trout carried the IPN virus, though none showed signs of illness. DNR officials said they hope they prevented the virus from escaping into the wild.
The DNR has promised to replace Teberg's trout this spring with state-owned hatchery trout, including trophy specimens. "It was surreal," Teberg said. "How could this happen when the government has such tight rules and regulations?"
The answer: Top fisheries managers failed to heed warnings from the DNR's own fish-disease expert and misunderstood state laws written to keep fish diseases out of Minnesota, according to records reviewed by the Pioneer Press.
protecting the fishery
Fish can get viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases, and the DNR takes the threat of those diseases seriously. To keep wild and hatchery fish from getting sick, Minnesota has some of the nation's strictest regulations for importing bait and commercial fish, said Roy Johannes, the DNR's aquaculture specialist.
"From our standpoint, we have to protect a tremendous fishery," Johannes said. "We probably have among the top 10 walleye lakes in the nation. We have tremendous trout fishing in the southeast and on the North Shore."
Teberg, 60, has spent the past seven years building a backyard trout pond. Until last spring, he had never heard of the IPN fish virus.
His fishing pond is an angler's paradise. It is fed by a man-made creek and has adjoining waterfalls and a fountain. A well and aerator keep water fresh. The shoreline is extensively landscaped.
Teberg's trouble began in late May, when he decided to buy 2,000 rainbow trout from Silver Moon Springs Fish Hatchery in Elton, Wis., for his pond.
Minnesota law requires that the DNR issue a transportation permit for fish moved across state lines; the permit allows the agency's fish-disease experts to ensure fish have been tested and are disease-free before entering the state.
A 1992 state law also requires that trout and salmon come from hatcheries that are disease-free for at least three years. The law also doesn't allow fish to be imported from hatcheries with IPN or other "emergency" diseases that have never been found in Minnesota and pose the greatest risks, Johannes said.
When it came time for Silver Moon Springs to ship its fish to Teberg, the hatchery manager submitted a transportation permit to Tim Goeman, the DNR's regional fisheries manager in Grand Rapids.
On May 27, Goeman forwarded the permit to the agency's disease specialist, Ling Shen, in St. Paul. Shen works in the DNR's three-person pathology lab, which approves transportation permits and investigates fish diseases.
Shen said she looked at the Teberg paperwork and accompanying health certificate for the 2,000 trout. She noticed the hatchery had tested positive for IPN earlier in the year, and she telephoned a Wisconsin veterinarian to confirm the test.
"When I had confirmation the hatchery had IPN, I denied the permit," she said.
The same day, Goeman telephoned his supervisor in St. Paul, Linda Erickson-Eastwood, to ask her opinion.
Erickson-Eastwood is the DNR fisheries program manager. In a recent interview, she recalled that she misunderstood the disease in question and advised Goeman that she thought the shipment could occur.
"We had a misunderstanding about what disease we were talking about," she said.
The next day, May 28, Goeman approved the permit, and Silver Moon Springs transported the fish to Teberg's pond and stocked it.
E-mails show that, more than a week later, Erickson-Eastwood acknowledged the mistake with staff, and she and others decided to contact Teberg and make plans to quarantine his pond and fish.
"I was totally blindsided," Teberg said.
The DNR agreed to wait to kill the fish. While Teberg's pond has a connection to Lake Superior through nearby Grand Lake and the St. Louis River, the pond wasn't flowing last summer, giving both parties time to agree on an action plan.
After negotiations during the summer, the DNR and Teberg agreed in August that the pond wouldn't be drained, but the fish would be killed and buried in his horse pasture.
About half the fish were buried in a 10-foot-deep trench and coated with lime to speed decomposition and keep animals from the fish, said Dan Dexter, a DNR fisheries specialist who headed the project to eliminate the trout.
Teberg was allowed to keep and eat the rest, which Dexter filleted for him.
"Dexter was a real gentleman," Teberg said. "I liked him and his co-workers real well. I ended up grilling elk steaks for them one afternoon."
At the DNR's request, the pond's aerator has been turned off for the winter, and the pond won't be stocked until spring. The DNR will test the pond for the disease for the next three years.
Shen said the odds were "very high" the DNR caught the virus before it escaped into the wild.
Goeman, the fish manager who mistakenly approved the permit, said he regrets his decision.
"Obviously, the permit shouldn't have been issued," he said. "There was at the least confusion or misinterpretation and some miscommunication between myself and others at the DNR."