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New veterinary medicine program supports Wisconsin aquaculture

March 1, 2006

Friday night fish fries are just one clue that the fish industry, including fish farming, is big business in Wisconsin.

There’s a whole economy associated with it – and veterinarians are key to that economy because they protect fish health. They are the ones who are best qualified to observe, detect, and treat potential diseases in fish.

However, fish health medicine has not been part of the standard veterinary medical school curriculum. Myron Kebus of Wisconsin’s Department of Trade, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) made that training his highest priority since he was hired as the state’s first aquaculture veterinarian in 1999.

Today, Kebus will launch the nation’s first such program – an online training certificate produced in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine’s Michael Collins. The newly developed Fish Health Medicine Certificate Program for veterinarians is modeled after a similar program that Collins created with DATCP on Johne’s disease in cattle. Both programs were developed and produced by Wisconsin’s Technology Resource for Educating Care-providers (WisTREC), directed by Jeannette McDonald. WisTREC is a group that specializes in online education for health professions.

“Myron is leading the way on this,” says Collins, a professor of microbiology.

Though it’s designed for Wisconsin veterinarians, the developers anticipate that other states are likely to adopt it because trained veterinarians help the aquaculture industry deal with emerging fish diseases and the resultant economic fallout they may cause.

“The more veterinarians we have doing the oversight, the more prepared we are to address concerns about emerging and exotic diseases,” Kebus says. “It’s important to be able to assess the risk of disease on fish farms, and to be able to reduce that risk.”

The economic potential is huge. There are 350 commercial fish farms in Wisconsin alone. Nationally, Wisconsin is the lead state in efforts to develop yellow perch farming, and it ranks third in baitfish production and seventh in trout production.

In the past five years, the United States has experienced three of the diseases recognized worldwide as being major fish diseases, according to Kebus.

“By having trained veterinarians, the level of surveillance becomes greater,” he says. “When there are a lot more people looking, we can say with confidence that no, we don’t have this disease.”

Veterinarians who successfully complete the certificate program will be knowledgeable about all aspects of fish health, including risk management, water quality, inspections, and health assessments. Following completion of five online modules, they will also be required to complete a hands-on practical training session before they are eligible for certification. The specialized knowledge from the course qualifies them to offer new services to fish farmers.

Wisconsin leads the world in the area of preparing veterinarians for fish health medicine. Development of the certificate program was supported by a USDA grant through a Mississippi State University risk assessment program. The UW School of Veterinary Medicine and the Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection also supported the project.

Veterinarians who want to participate in the new online Fish Health Medicine Certificate Program can find it at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s Web site.