Canada’s first laboratory dedicated to stopping whirling disease is opening in Vegreville, Alta.
The province said the new lab is an InnoTech Alberta facility that was previously used for autopsies on large animals. Nearly $2.9 million will go towards the lab’s operational costs and six full-time technicians.
The Vegreville facility is part of $9.3 million committed in this year’s budget to expedite testing in order to prevent the spread of the parasite-related disease.
“This is a great example of collaboration, leveraging InnoTech’s unique facilities and technical expertise into testing and research into whirling disease,” InnoTech Alberta managing director Ross Chow said.
The disease isn’t harmful to humans or other animals that consume infected fish, but it deforms and cripples young fish by penetrating the heads and spines of salmanoids like salmon, trout, whitefish and char.
The microscopic parasite eats away at cartilage in fish skulls, causing fish to swim erratically – or whirl. The whirling makes it difficult for the fish to feed and avoid predators. The fish also usually die prematurely.
The disease is spread between waterways by fish themselves, or recreational equipment used in the rivers and lakes for fishing, boating, paddling and swimming.
“Whirling disease is a threat to some of Alberta’s most iconic species,” Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said.
“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.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said whirling disease was detected on April 4 at three locations within the Crowsnest River – at the confluence of Crowsnest River and Todd Creek, downstream from the Highway 3 bridge near Lundbreck and upstream from the confluence of Crowsnest River and Rock Creek.
In February of this year, the CFIA confirmed fish in the Bow River, a renowned Alberta trout stream, had also been infected by the disease.
On Friday, the CFIA said the Red Deer River watershed was also infected with whirling disease.
The government said new declarations of whirling disease “are not necessarily evidence the disease is currently spreading, but reason for increasing awareness of the need to clean, drain and dry any equipment that comes into contact with water.”
The first Canadian case of whirling disease was found in fish in Banff National Park’s Johnson Lake in August 2016.
The province said more than 6,000 samples have been collected and tested from six Alberta watersheds since that time.
Additional funds have been dedicated towards implementing the province’s whirling disease action plan, which is an approach to determine the extent of the disease and use education and mitigation to prevent it from spreading, the government said.