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Published June 12, 2024

University to track emerging fish disease

The disease found in fish causes hemorrhaging and death and is creeping closer to Minnesota.

Saturday marks the opening of fishing season in Minnesota – 10,000-plus lakes packed with anglers and sportsmen of all kinds.

This year, however, the University is playing a role in monitoring the health of the fish being caught.

A disease called Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, known for causing hemorrhaging and death in fish, was discovered in the Great Lakes region for the first time in 2005. It’s been steadily making its way toward Minnesota ever since, prompting the University to begin monitoring the disease.

Nicholas Phelps, University aquaculture specialist, said VHS has yet to come to Lake Superior and lakes in Minnesota, but said it isn’t far off.

“Looking at the history of it, the virus is spreading quickly,” he said. “It’s likely someday it could come.”

The University is now one of only eight facilities in the United States certified by the USDA to track the movement of VHS.

The disease is naturally occurring, Phelps said, although its origins are unknown. It doesn’t affect humans but can quickly affect fish.

Sometimes called the “Ebola virus” of fish, Phelps said VHS reacts in the fish population the same way a new disease would affect a human population.

“Something bad comes into your area, a lot of people will get it, and some won’t,” he said. “Some people will develop immunity to it, and some will die.”

University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab director Jim Collins said he became aware of the disease around its first appearance in the Great Lakes. He hired Phelps shortly thereafter to track the disease.

“(VHS) is an environmental potential catastrophe,” he said, “so this is right where the University needs to be in helping solve these kinds of problems.”

Since VHS is commonly a cold-water disease, it’s most common in spring and fall, Phelps said. As the disease comes closer to Minnesota, Collins said samples sent to the lab for testing will increase.

“The surge is what is really scary to the lab director,” Collins said. “Surges bring a laboratory to its knees.”

Increased requests for testing are what led the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to work with the University, Ling Shen, a fish health specialist at the DNR, said.

“When this massive surveillance work came in, we couldn’t handle the amount of workload,” she said. “So now they are helping us, doing the tests for us, the ones we cannot handle.”

When the University tests the fish, it first goes to the diagnostic lab, where certain organs are taken from the fish. They are then exposed to cells, and if those cells die then the virus is present, Phelps said.

The state Legislature is already looking at the possibility of the disease.

A bill scheduled to be presented on the House floor Thursday would add more stringent regulation on transportation and testing of fish, from certifying all fish imported into the state as VHS-free, and to disallow fisherman younger than 16 to take fish from a lake for home aquarium use.

Regulation aside, Phelps said VHS would have only little impact on game fishing in the state.

“Some fish are going to die, but there’s a lot of fish in a lake,” he said, “But that’s not something you want, of course. It just doesn’t look good.”

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