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Nicholas Phelps

Nicholas Phelps is an aquaculture specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

A threat to Minnesota fish

University aquaculture specialist aims to halt spread of lethal fish virus

By Nick Hanson

May 8, 2008

The Ebola virus for fish.

Perhaps that's the best way to describe VHS, or viral hemorrhagic septicemia. The lethal fish virus causes severe hemorrhaging and is capable of producing massive fish kills in some of Minnesota anglers' favorite game and eating fish, including walleye, muskie, perch, sunfish, crappie, and smallmouth and largemouth bass.

The virus, which isn't native to the Great Lakes, was first diagnosed in Lakes St. Clair and Ontario in 2005. Since then, fish kills have occurred in other Great Lakes, including Huron and Michigan, and inland lakes in New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It has yet to hit Lake Superior and inland Minnesota lakes but, unfortunately, fish experts predict it is just a matter of time before the virus spreads through the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

While it does not pose a threat to people who handle or eat an infected catch, it is not a virus you want stewing in your favorite fishing hole. And it's something fishermen will want to be well aware of as the fishing season kicks off, says Nicholas Phelps, aquaculture specialist at the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL).

"Not only does the virus have potential to hurt the sport fishing and tourism industries of Minnesota, it also will likely have a detrimental impact on the commercial fishing industry," Phelps says. "This includes all fish--both for stocking and bait--that will be required to undergo strict (and expensive) testing before release into state waters."

Having a knowledge of the virus is paramount to sport fishermen throughout Minnesota and in the Great Lakes region.

"As the aquaculture industry grows, and more and more people eat fish, it's important that we closely monitor fish for VHS and other viruses, just like any other animal."

Phelps offers a few tips to help curb the spread of the disease:

Fortunately, the University of Minnesota has also taken a number of preventative steps to halt the spread of VHS. The first was creating Phelps's position as the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory's aquaculture specialist. To better serve Minnesota, VDL director Jim Collins saw a need for the position, what with VHS and other viruses nearing state waters.

"As the aquaculture industry grows, and more and more people eat fish, it's important that we closely monitor fish for VHS and other viruses, just like any other animal," Collins says.

At the lab headquarters in St. Paul, Phelps is testing fish for VHS and other diseases. He is also working with fish farms and state agencies throughout the region, since few labs have these capabilities. Each week the lab continues to test more fish. The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab has also been working in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources on a federally funded VHS surveillance program, testing 90 bodies of water through this spring. The University of Minnesota will continue to work with the DNR and veterinarians to offer the necessary diagnostic and export testing services for the state's aquaculture industry, hobbyists, and natural fisheries. "The combination of experience, testing methods, and capacity make it a win-win situation for both labs and the state of Minnesota," Phelps says. The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab recently became one of only eight labs in the country approved to conduct export testing for VHS by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "While it's not time to panic, it's certainly time to be aware," Phelps says. "Many are considering VHS to be the worst freshwater fish disease of all time."