Whirling disease keeps spreading


A deadly fish disease that has been spreading across the West now has a foothold in New Mexico.

Three state hatcheries recently tested positive for whirling disease, prompting New Mexico Game and Fish officials to begin testing streams, rivers and lakes. Whirling disease spores, now known to be present in 10 Western states, attack young trout, devouring brain and spinal cartilage, causing them to "whirl" in circles (HCN, 9/18/95: The West's fisheries spin out of control).

Chief of Fisheries Jack Kelly says he doesn't yet know the extent of the infection's spread or how it's going to affect the state's $145 million trout-fishing business. "It's hard to speculate what's going to happen in the future until we get a handle on what's happening now," he says. So far, officials say the Pecos and San Juan rivers harbor the disease.

To slow the spread, all hatchery fish testing positive were destroyed and buried. "We don't want to contribute to the spread by releasing infected fish," says Kelly.

The agency is also launching an initiative to educate anglers about cleaning fishing gear and keeping entrails away from the water and out of garbage disposals in order to prevent the spread of the microscopic spores. Whirling disease spores are so hardy they can withstand a trip through a water treatment plant or cling to an angler's muddy waders. Then they can infect waters the following seasons.

Kelly says he wasn't surprised to see whirling disease appear in New Mexico. Some of the state's best trout fishing is on rivers originating in Colorado, he says, where whirling disease has already severely harmed fisheries.

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