Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fish Need Health Insurance Too!

During a fishing trip out on the Chesapeake Bay not long ago, as the sun set and seagulls circled, my friend hauled in a striped bass as long as my arm. We immediately recognized there was something wrong with the fish, however. It had lesions on its side.
I've caught literally hundreds of fish with lesions. I think they like to hang out around structures because they're not health enough to compete with healthy schooling fish out in the Bay.
Striped bass are the most popular saltwater sportfish on the East Coast. But there are millions like the one I saw that evening: with open sores and masses of gray nodules in their spleens. Both are signs of a chronic wasting disease called mycobacteriosis.

“In the Chesapeake Bay here, it is extremely common,” said Dr. Wolfgang K. Vogelbein, Professor of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). “Some of our data over the last 10 years suggests that the 2 to 3 year old fish -– the schooling, resident striped bass -– are showing the disease in epidemic proportions. Over 90 percent of those animals are infected.”
Nevertheless, the majority of visible lesions are not caused by Mycobacterium, they are caused by a group of bacteria and fungus that attack weakened fish.  So, while a fish with lesions may harbor Mycobacteria, as do the majority of fish, the visible lesion itself is likely cause by other things.
During his decade and a half of research, Dr. Vogelbein and his associates have made progress in solving some of the mysteries of “myco.” For example, he and his colleagues have concluded the disease is increasing the natural (non-fishing) death rate of striped bass by 15 to 20 percent per year.
Which is pretty significant, until you consider that the fishing mortality is something like 50%,
Dr. Vogelbein said it’s clear that eating infected fish poses no threat to humans when the fish is cooked. However, handling stripers with open sores can pose a potential risk of infection to fishermen who have open cuts on their hands.
I know several people infected with Myco.  In most cases, a long course of antibiotics seems to clean it up, but in a few cases, surgery has been necessary. I figure it's only a matter of time until I get a case.  I try to avoid getting stuck by the fish spines and cut by the gills, but it still happens.
But Dr. Vogelbein’s important research is about to run out of federal funding before important questions can be answered -- in part, because of budget cuts in Washington DC.

“These are long-term expensive research efforts, at a time when funding for scientific research is declining,” he said. “We built this phenomenal laboratory here at VIMS. But now we’re out of money, or almost out of money. And we’re not going to be able to do the studies that need to be done unless we can get more funding for this work.”
Ah, the funding question...  Assuming you find out exactly how fish get myco, what are you going to do about it?  Give all the fish a shot?   Clean up the Bay?  That's already in the works, but, trust me, it ain't gonna happen tomorrow if at all.

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