Pacific Region Fish Health Program
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Pacific Region

Fish Health Program In Action

Partnering to Protect Endangered Kootenai River White Sturgeon

Endangered Kootenai White Sturgeon

In partnership with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Idaho Fish Heath Center (FHC) is working to reestablish wild spawning of the endangered Kootenai River White Sturgeon.  The Idaho FHC provides all the fish health services required for the Kootenai Tribe to successfully rear and then move endangered Kootenai River White Sturgeon to the wild. As part of these services, the Idaho FHC tests fish for bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases.

The partnership between the Kootenai Tribe and the Idaho FHC is part of the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Plan.  This conservation program includes protocols on broodstock collection, propagation, juvenile rearing, fish health, genetics, and stocking in order to spawn, rear, and release healthy sturgeon.  These strategic efforts are necessary because numerous dams, especially Libby Dam, have prevented fish migration and water flows needed for sturgeon spawning.

Endangered Kootenai White Sturgeon raised in tanks by the Kootenai Tribe in Northern Idaho. (Credit: Laura Sprague/USFWS)
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Spreading the Word on Biosecurity to Improve Fish Health

Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers Aquatic nuisance species and fish diseases are a significant threat to wild fish populations. Yet, many biologists and sportsman are not aware of how easily invasive species and disease organisms can be carried from one site to another.  In response to this threat, the Idaho Fish Health Center developed a training program to help these groups to be more aware of this problem and how to reduce risks from accidental transfers of disease and invasive species.  The training includes information on nuisance species found in specific areas, potential pathways of introduction to new areas, and how to properly disinfect gear.  Since the initial training presentation for the American Fisheries Society in 2011, Idaho FHC has continued to spread the word by training groups in various agencies, Tribes, and sportsman’s groups. 
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Using Fish Health Center Science to Replenish Aquatic Ecosystems

Fish Health Examination of coho salmon

The Lower Columbia River Fish Health Center (LCRFHC) facilitates the use of fish carcasses to replenish nutrients to streams without the risk of spreading disease.  In the past, the nutrients supplied by salmon returning to their natal streams were a key component in the web of insects, mammals, and plants that contribute to fish survival. The decline in returning salmon has led to streams barren of nutrients necessary to provide habitat for wild fish survival. To mitigate these effects, Tribal, state, and federal entities use hatchery salmon carcasses to resupply vital nutrients to streams. The dilemma of this strategy is that some adult salmon may carry diseases that can be transmitted to native fish.

The LCRFHC tested and developed a method to reduce or kill fish disease organisms in salmonid carcasses.  This, along with the health information collected by the Center during regular inspections of hatchery salmon, enables the Yakama Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs to safely use spawned-out hatchery adult salmon to replenish aquatic habitats. 

A monthly examination of coho salmon juveniles at the Willard NFH allows Matt Stinson of the Lower Columbia River FHC to assess the health of the fish and to talk with hatchery personnel in the mutual effort to prevent disease. (Credit: USFWS)
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Fish Health Care for Endangered Species Recovery Project—White River Spring Chinook Salmon

Juvenile Spring Chinook Salmon

In past years, only 14 pairs of spawning adult White River spring Chinook salmon were recorded in the Wenatchee sub basin of the Columbia River Basin. The Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery and the Lower Columbia River Fish Health Center (LCRFHC) have significantly increased the population of this endangered species through restoration efforts in the upper Wenatchee Basin of the White River.

Efforts to recover this endangered stock of salmon began in September of 2009 when Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery began a captive broodstock program. The LCRFHC has collaborated with the hatchery to control the diseases that normally kill captive broodstock Chinook.  Since 2009, the LCRFHC has employed the best fish culture methods for rearing captive brood and refined methods for controlling  bacterial kidney disease (BKD) and Salmincola (gill parasite).  This collaborative effort has resulted in a ten-fold increase in the number of adults surviving to spawn.  Of these surviving adults, 99% had no to low levels of BKD—a significant improvement over the 22% in 2008.

Juvenile spring Chinook salmon. (Credit: USFWS)
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New High Tech Facility for Fish Health

If network TV pilots a ‘CSI: Fish Pathogens,’ the Olympia Fish Health Center might be a prime filming location. The Olympia Fish Health Center relocated to a newer, state-of-the art laboratory in Lacey, Washington in late summer 2012, expanding its capacity to conduct lab and field-based fish health studies. The additional—and more efficient—space is already paying off: last year Health Center staff worked with scientists from British Columbia, the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, and other partners on a variety of projects to safeguard the survival of fish in the Puget Sound Basin and beyond. Milestones include: monitoring resident kokanee and migrating sockeye populations in the dam-free Elwha River system, investigating causes of fish kills of coho in the Seattle area’s urban streams, and working with others to institute measures that reduce the risk of disease-causing infectious salmon anemia virus strains spreading to wild and hatchery Pacific salmon and steelhead.
Students viewing slides on multiheaded microscopes with an instructor during a Fundementals of Fish Health Course at Olympia Fish Health Center. (Credit: USFWS)
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Monitoring Fish Health During Ecosystem Recovery

Elwha before and after dam removal

The Elwha River is serving as a “living laboratory” for monitoring large-scale ecosystem recovery and investigating particular ecosystem processes and components. The Elwha River Project will restore access to Elwha Lake for sockeye salmon and other migratory fish species after nearly 100 years of blockage. The project includes dam removal, restoration efforts, and protection measures. 

Monitoring the flow of fish diseases among the resident and migratory fish species in the river is an important facet of the ecosystem recovery process. As such, the Olympia Fish Health Center has been part of a collaborative effort to conduct health surveys of fish populations before and after dam removal.  This monitoring effort includes biologists from the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, NOAA-Fisheries, Department of Fisheries and Oceans-Canada, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Olympic National Park.  Through this work, a previously undescribed parasite was discovered in kokanee salmon from Lake Sutherland.

Elwha River before (top) and after dam removal. (Credit: John Gussman)
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Conducting the National Wild Fish Health Survey

The National Wild Fish Health Survey (NWFHS) was initiated by Congress in 1997 to monitor the impact and spread of Salmonid Whirling Disease. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the first agency to develop a standardized approach and set up a collaborative network to collect and share wild fish disease information. Network collaboration includes partnerships between federal and state agencies, Tribes, private industry, and academia.

Since its inception, the NWHFS has utilized state-of-the-art technology to test for the presence of diseases (including viruses, bacteria, and parasites) and prevent the spread of fish diseases in wild fish populations. The survey is conducted by the Pacific Region Fish Health Program and (in other Regions) by the FWS Fish Health Centers. The success of the Survey relies on collaboration between the FWS and federal, state, and Tribal fishery managers to ensure the preservation of our valuable wild and native fish stocks.

In the Pacific Region, NWFHS funding is used to answer specific fish health questions affecting fish living in the wild. An excellent example of the Survey’s achievements is our work that first showed that a fish parasite is likely responsible for poor survival of Chinook salmon migrating through the Deschutes River system in Oregon. Not only did this study [link it please] show the apparent cause of the poor survival, but the information can also be used by fisheries managers to mitigate the parasites impact.

Two pests--spring viremia of carp virus and carp--are being monitored by USFWS personnel at Malheur NWR. As part of the Wild Fish Health Survey, the Lower Columbia River Fish Health Center collects carp and other aquatic nuisance species to monitor pathogens of national concern. (Credit: Ken Lujan/USFWS)
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Supporting the Investigational New Animal Drug Partnership


Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries follow best management practices to ensure fish health.  These best practices emphasize disease prevention and call for the use of drugs only as a last resort. Although we do everything that we can to prevent diseases, hatchery fish are occasionally exposed to diseases carried by wild fish.  When this happens Fish Health Centers may recommend drug treatments if there is no other alternative.

Sometimes it is difficult to address fish health emergencies because the current list of legal drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very short.  The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Investigational New Animal Drug (INAD) program is working to increase the number of drugs approved for fish. The INAD program is overseen by the FWS Aquatic Animal Drug Approval Partnership Program, an organization where the FDA, drug companies, scientists, and fish health professionals all work together to collect data needed to gain FDA approval for new aquaculture drugs. 

Pacific Region Fish Health Centers are very active in the process of conducting field tests and collecting data needed for drug approvals under INAD programs.  Recently we have provided data showing that a new drug is a promising treatment for a parasite that threatened captive stocks of endangered white river Chinook salmon.  We have also collected data showing that a new fish anesthetic is a great tool to improve our ability to safely handle listed bull trout.  While we try to avoid drug use, participation in the INAD program leads to safe, effective, and legal treatments to protect the health of fish when there is no other alternative. 

The FWS Aquatic Animal Drug Approval Partnership Program oversees the INAD Program. (Credit: USFWS)
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About Our Program

The veterinarians and biologists of the Pacific Region Fish Heath Program protect the health of salmon on FWS and many Tribal fish hatcheries, and also work to detect and mitigate disease problems in fish populations living in the wild. Historically the Pacific Region operated three Regional Fish Health Centers, but in 2017 the laboratory functions of these Centers were consolidated in Lacey, WA and Laboratory and on-hatchery field staff collectively renamed the “Pacific Region Fish Health Program”.  It is managed by Dr. Andrew E. Goodwin.

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