Whirling disease lab opens in Vegreville

Province allocates $9.3 million to prevent further spread of the disease

  • Jun. 23, 2017 12:30 a.m.


The Alberta government is taking action on whirling disease by opening Canada’s first laboratory exclusively dedicated to testing for and preventing the disease.

The new facility is part of $9.3 million committed in Budget 2017 to expedite testing as part of efforts to prevent the further spread of the parasite-related disease, which was discovered in the Oldman and Bow watersheds in the past year.

Whirling disease is not harmful to humans but can severely impact juvenile trout and whitefish, including vulnerable bull and westslope cutthroat trout populations.

“Whirling disease is a threat to some of Alberta’s most iconic species. Accurate and timely testing is our first step in reducing that threat. We also need to ensure Albertans clean, drain and dry any gear that touches water,” said Shannon Phillips, Minister of Environment and Parks

The new lab is in an InnoTech Alberta (a subsidiary of Alberta Innovates) facility formerly used for autopsies on large animals. Nearly $2.9 million will go towards the lab’s operational costs, as well as the six full-time technicians who process samples for expedited testing at the University of Alberta.

“This is a great example of collaboration, leveraging InnoTech’s unique facilities and technical expertise into testing and research into whirling disease,” said Ross Chow, managing director, InnoTech Alberta

The province began collecting samples to test for whirling disease in August 2016, when the first case was discovered at Johnson Lake in Banff National Park. Since then, more than 6,000 samples have been collected and tested from six of Alberta’s watersheds, as well as provincial hatcheries and commercial fish farms.

Additional funds from this year’s budget will go towards implementing Alberta’s whirling disease action plan. The three-pillared approach is focused on determining the extent of the disease and using education and mitigation to prevent it from spreading. Alberta will hire additional staff to work throughout the province, including a fish disease specialist, fisheries biologists, aquaculture specialists, and outreach and education staff.

Whirling disease action plan

Detection and Delineation: Working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to determine the full extent of whirling disease. A whirling disease committee has been established to address the long-term management of the disease.

Education: Public engagement, work with stakeholders and posting of educational materials to prevent the spread of whirling disease. This includes the province’s Clean, Drain, Dry public awareness campaign.

Mitigation: Actions taken to prevent the spread, such as: CFIA permits to stock fish from the infected area to locations outside of the infected zone, as well as all Class A fish farms and provincial aquaculture facilities implementing approved biosecurity protocols and testing negative for whirling disease.

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