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Water Today Title June 29, 2022

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Advisory of the Day



This story is brought to you in part by Seaveyors

As whimsical as whirling disease may sound, it is a very serious affliction facing finned fish in Alberta.

Johnson Lake in Banff National Park tested positive for the invasive parasite in the fall of 2016 and the race to contain began. So far, Albertan officials are a little behind as it was confirmed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently that the entire Bow River watershed has been infected.

Whirling disease is a parasite that hitchhikes within the body of local worms, which are in turn eaten by sport fish like trout and salmon. Juvenile members of the species are the most afflicted by the parasite, which penetrate the head and spine of the fish as well as affecting their equilibrium organ, causing the individual to swim around in circles. This greatly hinders their ability to feed and avoid potential predators. In some cases, the disease has knocked out 90% of a fish population.

Peter Giamberardino, Whirling Disease Coordinator for Alberta Environment and Parks is spearheading the effort to contain this calamity. He leads a group of teams that are hoping to implement a three pronged plan built around detection, education and mitigation. At this early stage of discovery, it is vital to find out where the disease is located in order to come up with the best strategy to fight it.

As far as education's concerned, "We're trying to spread the word and provide education to the public about what they can do to help. Specifically, recreational anglers and boaters who we're asking to follow the cleaning, draining and drying method with their equipment," Giamberardino said.

He went on to say, "For mitigation we've put a quarantine on all provincial and private aquaculture facilities until they're tested for the disease. If they test positive, we need to take steps to make sure disease is no longer present before they can continue stocking fish."

The situation has even resulted in talks to remove all fish from Johnson Lake, the first location in which the disease was spotted. "The thought behind that is Johnson Lake is a hotspot for whirling disease and it's a very popular place to recreate and that makes it very easy to spread whirling disease to nearby lakes," said Lesley Peterson, the Alberta Provincial Biologist for Trout Unlimited Canada. She added that something similar was done in Colorado recently that reports suggest yielded favourable results. Her organisation is actively working to educate different groups on whirling disease by using presentations in addition to sharing info on their website and social media.

"We're not just focused on whirling disease but all aquatic invasive species, because a lot of the procedures for cleaning equipment are similar."

She noted that just because the Canadian food inspection agency designated the Bow River watershed as infected, it doesn't mean that every single steam and tributary has whirling disease, so even within the Bow Basin people should still clean their equipment. According to a 2010 government survey of recreational fishing in Canada, the amount of active anglers in Alberta was well over 300,000. They brought in over $450 million to local businesses.

Although whirling disease does not pose a threat to humans who come in contact with it through swimming or eating infected fish, the consequences to the Alberta economy and the species infected could be dire.

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