Red Deer River watershed infected with whirling disease

Red Deer, Bow and Oldman River watersheds now all declared infected with fish disease.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has declared the Red Deer River watershed infected with whirling disease.

While not harmful to humans, whirling disease can severely affect juvenile trout and whitefish populations, says Alberta Environment and Parks in a Friday news release.

The declaration covers all streams, creeks, lakes and rivers feeding into the Red Deer River, ending at the Saskatchewan border.

CFIA’s announcement follows declarations of infection in the Bow and Oldman River watersheds. Whirling disease was first discovered in Banff National Park in September 2016.

Whirling disease is so named because a parasite affects the fish’s nervous system and it starts swimming in a whirling manner. It is not harmful to humans but in young fish the mortality rate can be as high as 90 per cent.

The declaration establishes a federal role in managing the disease. Movement permits will be required from the CFIA for susceptible species.

The province recently announced $9.3 million to fund Alberta’s three-point whirling disease action plan.

As part of that plan, the province opened a whirling disease laboratory in Vegreville, a facility dedicated to determining the extent of whirling disease. Additional staff have also been hired throughout the province.

“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,” says Alberta Environment and Parks.

Keeping the disease’s prevalence low will reduce the threat to wild trout populations, says the province.

Areas in Alberta outside the Bow, Oldman, and Red Deer River watersheds were previously declared as a buffer area and are not affected by today’s declaration.

The province’s action plan involves working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to determine the spread of the disease. A committee has been set up to look at how to manage the disease long-term.

A public education campaign has also been launched to raise awareness and includes the Clean, Drain, Dry initiative.

A mitigation plan involves fish stocking permits and approved biosecurity protocols fish farms and provincial acquaculture facilities.

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