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USDA expanding efforts to protect farmed aquatic animals

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By Milthon Lujan

By Greg Cima*
A plan published this summer would consolidate authority over aquaculture under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and expand measures to find and control disease outbreaks.

The changes would create national guidance on aquaculture-related disease reporting, disease surveillance, outbreak response, biosecurity, employee training, diagnostic laboratory standards, pathogen testing, and certifications that aquatic animals are healthy and safe, according to information from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. All of those are elements of a robust aquatic animal health system, the plan document states.

“The integrity of this system is the platform for safeguarding the health of all aquatic animals, farm-raised and wild, as well as supporting health certification of U.S. aquaculture-produced aquatic animals.”

APHIS officials outline the changes through the National Aquaculture Health Plan and Standards, 2021-2023 (PDF), and the document notes that an executive order from President Biden mandates that the plan be updated every two years by the USDA and its partners. 

Dr. Stephen Reichley, president of the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association, said implementing these science-based policies could help efforts to protect aquatic animal health, minimize disease, and facilitate trade.

“If the plan is successfully implemented and adopted by all stakeholders, then it could help support the aquaculture industry and provide the necessary infrastructure for advancement of animal health and sustainable growth of U.S. aquaculture,” Dr. Reichley said.

Since a previous version of the aquaculture plan was published in 2008, representatives from APHIS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have shared leadership of a federal task force on protecting aquaculture animal health and aiding animal shipping and trade.

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Accomplishments include coordinating export certification services, developing animal health modules for the National Veterinary Accreditation Program, and incorporating aquatic animal pathogens into the National Animal Health Reporting System and National Animal Health Laboratory Network, APHIS information states. The group also led surveillance projects for diseases including infectious salmon anemia and viral hemorrhagic septicemia.

But the new plan notes that lack of resources hampered the group’s progress, especially in light of the diversity of species, production methods, and uses for the aquatic animals affected by the plan, according to a summary in the new plan. Stakeholders also disagreed on acceptable amounts of disease risk and how much needed mitigation through measures such as testing and biosecurity.

The document further states that oversight of animal health had been vague or dispersed among federal agencies and state-level departments, creating confusing and redundant regulations on aquatic animal health. Millions of healthy aquatic animals had been needlessly destroyed because of these conflicts, the document states.

In 2018, for example, Cooke Aquaculture Pacific had to destroy about 800,000 Atlantic salmon following molecular detection of piscine orthoreovirus. But detecting genetic material of a pathogen in an otherwise healthy population doesn’t necessarily indicate a population is infected or able to spread the disease, an APHIS spokesman said.

In 2020, President Joe Biden signed an executive order authorizing the creation of a new aquaculture plan—with the USDA leading its implementation.

APHIS spokesperson Joelle R. Hayden provided a statement that the USDA is the primary federal entity overseeing livestock and other agricultural commodities, so it’s fitting that the department would lead federal efforts on aquaculture and aquatic animal health. USDA officials will continue collaborating with officials from NOAA and USFWS.

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Dr. Reichley said that continued collaboration with federal, state, and tribal entities is key to making the plan work. But he expressed disappointment that a technical working group described in the plan doesn’t include dedicated seats for the WAVMA or the American Association of Fish Veterinarians, which he said could be excellent resources for those federal and local agencies.

Dr. Reichley also said he commends USDA officials for recognizing that veterinarians must lead disease investigations, treatments, reporting, and other responses under the Comprehensive Aquaculture Health Program Standards, which is a livestock health inspection program outlined in the document. But he and other WAVMA leaders would like to see that leadership role applied to veterinarians more broadly in the planning document.

“I think veterinarians are well positioned and qualified to ensure the health and welfare of aquatic animals,” Dr. Reichley said. “We would like to see that role of veterinarians be applied to the plan in its entirety.”

*Source: American Veterinary Medical Association

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