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Experts: Disease threatens 'growing' US tilapia industry

It's not just the Asian and South American powerhouses that could be affected by the spreading disease. 

So far, tilapia lake virus (TiLV) has affected six countries in South America, Asia and the Middle East -- but the United States has, until now, managed to avoid any issues surrounding the disease. 

If the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) lists TiLV as a "reportable disease" -- which University of Florida's Aquaculture Expert Craig Watson told IntraFish is likely to happen in the next six months to a year -- that could change quickly. 

If TiLV is indeed listed as "reportable," the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will require import health testing for susceptible species coming into Canada as live fish, Watson said. 

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While US tilapia production is nowhere near that of powerhouses such as China and Thailand, it does produce about a million pounds of live tilapia per year and nearly all of it goes to Canada, tilapia guru Kevin Fitzsimmons of the University of Arizona told IntraFish

Florida, which Watson said has "tremendously" ramped up its live tilapia production in the past decade, rakes in about $10 million (€8.5 million) annually -- and half goes to Canada. 

"The market in major [Canadian] cities is very strong, primarily the Asian community that is looking to pay top dollar for live fish," Watson said. "The fish are hauled live from the United States into these major markets." 

In other words, US suppliers need to stay on top of the virus. 

Kathleen Hartman, aquaculture program leader at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), led a conference call with the US tilapia community on Friday to talk about ways to do just that. 

On the call, Hartman said APHIS is actively working with the National Aquaculture Association, tilapia growers in the United States and private laboratories to secure testing methods, methodologies and for the virus domestically. 

Watson is trying to take it a step further. He is working with a program called Rapid Outcomes for Agricultural Research (ROAR) to begin testing the four major producers of tilapia fry and fingerlings in the United States. 

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"Then, we would work with producers who are buying those fingerlings for growout to educate them on the need to get clean stock and work on biosecurity on their farms," he said. 

The farms would be inspected annually by the USDA Veterinary Services Department to receive a clean bill of health before receiving registration for exports, a tangible way for the CFIA to see that the fish are virus-free. 

"So far, Canada has been open to that conversation," Watson said. 

The ROAR program would pay 50 percent of the cost of testing; the cost for the other half would fall to US tilapia producers, universities such as University of Florida that are involved in tilapia production, and testing labs that develop the tests. 

"If this works, we can jump on this much faster, rather than waiting for grants or funds," he said. "We think we'll capture about 90 percent or more of all the tilapia fingerlings produced in the United States through this testing." 

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