Whirling disease detected in Red Deer River basin for 1st time

The province announced it has opened a lab dedicated to testing for whirling disease Thursday as the CFIA said the disease has been detected in the Red Deer River basin for the first time.

Province opens lab dedicated to preventing disease in Vegreville as part of $9.3M plan

The Alberta government is opening Canada’s first laboratory dedicated to testing for and preventing whirling disease. It will be located in Vegreville in a facility formerly used for autopsies on large animals. (Mike Lawrence/The Gleaner/Associated Press)

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said whirling disease has been discovered in the Red Deer River basin for the first time, just as the Alberta government unveiled a new facility dedicated to testing for the disease.

The CFIA says three cases were confirmed on June 13.

The discovery does not necessarily indicate the disease has spread, CFIA spokesperson Maria Kubacki told CBC News.

"Whirling disease may have been present for several years," she said.

The disease, which is caused by a parasitic infection, affects trout and whitefish and can cause them to swim in a whirling pattern and die prematurely. It's not harmful to humans.

Whirling disease was first detected in Banff National Park's Johnson Lake in August 2016, but has since been found in the entire Bow River watershed and the Oldman River basin in Alberta.

Dedicated lab opens in Vegreville

On Thursday, the province announced it has opened a new lab in Vegreville, east of Edmonton, devoted to testing for and preventing the disease as part of its $9.3-million commitment to tackling the problem.

The lab, the first of its kind in Canada, was set up in a facility that had been used for autopsies on large animals, Environment and Parks said in a release.

"Whirling disease is a threat to some of Alberta's most iconic species. Accurate and timely testing is our first step in reducing that threat," said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips.

With a $2.9-million operating budget, the lab's six full-time technicians will process samples to be tested at the University of Alberta.

Since the disease was first detected, more than 6,000 samples have been collected and tested from six Alberta watersheds, provincial hatcheries and commercial fish farms, the province says.

The province also plans to hire additional staff to work throughout the province, including a fish disease specialist, fisheries biologists, aquaculture specialists and outreach and education staff.