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Whirling Disease in Trout a Focus in Utah

April 24, 2006

SALT LAKE CITY – A disease that can deform trout, cause them to chase their own tail and eventually lead to their starvation will get special attention this year from legislators, who want to try to reduce its effects on commercial and recreational fisheries.

More than a dozen private fish hatcheries have tested positive for whirling disease in Utah since 1991, causing multiple commercial trout facilities to either shut down or be quarantined at a cost of millions of dollars to the state’s economy.

“We want to make sure it’s under control, that we don’t have any issues that will threaten our fisheries,” said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.

The disease, which is caused by an infectious parasite, isn’t harmful to humans or other mammals, but it can be transferred by them to other cold-water fisheries through the movement of mud. The disease is also spread via birds, fish and fish parts.

“As far as how fast it spreads, it’s kind of up in the air. A lot of people think it takes years and years, but water runs downstream and downhill. It normally doesn’t take that long to spread downstream,” said Kent Hauck, fish pathologist for the state Department of Agriculture and Food.

Studying whirling disease is one of about a half-dozen issues the Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee will study this summer and fall to determine if additional legislation is needed. Typically, issues studied during an interim session that result in bills being drafted – with a favorable recommendation from the committee where they originated – have a good chance of becoming law.

Barrus, co-chairman of the committee, said Monday he’s uncertain how long whirling disease will be studied or if any legislation will come from it, but protecting trout is worth the effort.

“They’re extremely important, not only from the standpoint of recreation, but we have some world-class fish hatcheries here,” he said. “It’s of high enough importance that we certainly want to take a look.”

Between 2004 and 2005, six trout operations closed – leaving 21, according to the federal National Agricultural Statistics Service. In the same period, revenue from the sale of trout dropped from $760,000 to $540,000.

Whirling disease isn’t limited to Utah.

Congress authorized the creation of the Whirling Disease Initiative in 1997 to fight its spread among trout and salmon. The cooperation among the 23 states to have reported the disease – primarily in the West and Northeast – is unprecedented, said Kajsa Stromberg, outreach program coordinator for the initiative in Bozeman, Mont.

“There’s a national interest in this disease and in cooperating and pooling resources. This hasn’t happened for any other fish health issue. … People love trout and salmon and people got very concerned,” she said.

Last summer, 900,000 fish from a Springville hatchery were removed, given away or destroyed because of the outbreak of whirling disease that was discovered there last April.

One of the easiest ways to stop the spread of the disease is to educate fishermen, Stromberg said. Cleaning fishing gear, boats and boots is critical to stopping the disease’s spread, she said.

“People are going to have to change their behavior in order to preserve their fish,” Stromberg said.

On the Net:

Whirling Disease Initiative http://www.whirlingdisease.montana.edu




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