Aquatic animal disease, inspection, certification and veterinary medicine

April 2021

Farmed aquatic animals (aquatic livestock or aquaculture) is now a $1 billion industry in the U.S. and affects the agriculture economy of every state. Farm-raised finfish also contribute significantly to the $15 billion bait and sport-fishing industry in the Great Lakes area alone, and provide ornamental (companion or pet) aquatic animals for public and home aquaria, the ownership of which almost rival cat or dog ownership.

However, disease has emerged in aquatic livestock as a big issue impacting the production, economics, interstate/international animal trade and movement, and state and federal regulation. In turn, this is affecting an estimated 2,500 aquatic veterinarians servicing these industries in all states, and may impact the veterinary profession at large. Government regulation is having a dramatic impact on the aquatic livestock industries and may impact national initiatives such as the National Veterinary Accreditation Program.

For a variety of reasons, emerging state statutes and regulations dealing with aquatic animal health and disease, and veterinary inspection and certification for the interstate movement of aquatic livestock, are not consistent with guidance of the federal Animal Health Protection Act of 2002 and its regulations. The issues include: the lack of standardized approaches similar to those already in use for terrestrial livestock and companion animals for inspecting and certifying animals to be disease-free; ambiguous state agency authority and jurisdiction for aquatic animal health, and for farmed and companion aquatic animals; emerging state regulations that are difficult to locate, confusing and sometimes ambiguous; and, the use of unlicensed non-veterinarians and out-of-state personnel willing to "certify fish health," that in some cases appear to be in conflict with state veterinary practice acts.

Solutions at the state level are needed to address optimal aquatic veterinary approaches to aquatic livestock health and disease, and related legislation and regulations.

The urgent need for solutions is clearly illustrated by considering that three of the five recent USDA National Emergency Declarations for animal disease outbreaks have been for aquatic animal diseases. Diseases like infectious salmon anemia, spring viremia of carp, and koi herpesvirus are now receiving the same level of attention given to avian influenza, Newcastle's disease, and foot-and-mouth disease. Furthermore, the emergence of viral haemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) in 2006, which can affect more than 60 species of finfish (but not other animals or humans), resulted in the first ever USDA-APHIS Federal Order for an animal disease. In an attempt to protect farmed finfish throughout the country the Federal Order prevented the movement of at least 28 species of finfish from eight Great Lakes states (NY, PA, OH, MI, IN, IL, MO, WI) and two Canadian provinces (ON, QC), unless animals could be certified to be free of VHS.

The emergence of VHS has highlighted the urgent need for consistent laws and regulations to best protect aquatic livestock industries and states from aquatic diseases. Despite the guidance of the 2002 Animal Health Protection Act in which Congress provided a clear and consistent approach for addressing adequate import and export regulations of all livestock (including farmed aquatic animals), little has been done at either the state or federal levels to incoprorate a uniform process of certifying the health of aquatic animals using Certificates of Veterinary Inspection, as is done with all other livestock. States affected by VHS begun to issue emergency orders, interim regulations, and implement other restrictive actions, all of which have significantly impacted the aquatic industries and the veterinary profession. In April 2014 APHIS announced they were lifting the VHS Federal Order as long as states maintain existing VHS regulations and other practices to reduce risk of VHS.

Unfortunately, most state requirements are inconsistent, ambiguous, confusing, difficult to find, and do not appear to meet the goal of the Federal Order in assuring finfish moved in interstate commerce are free of VHS without disrupting the integrity of aquatic livestock industries. This is confounded by debate over state agency authority and jurisdiction for farmed aquatic animal health and aquatic livestock. In some cases, these appear to conflict with state veterinary practice acts, allow unlicensed non-veterinarians, academics, and out-of-state personnel to certify that animals are free of disease; some appear to exclude or negate the use of USDA-accredited veterinarians. As one of several examples, Minnesota adopted a law requiring fish health inspection be conducted by "an individual certified as a fish health inspector by the American Fisheries Society or state, federal, or provincial resource management agency."

The overall affect has been a several year disruption of farmed aquatic animal industries, and interstate trade and movement, with dramatic economic impact on several states. A lack of workable regulation may significantly impact international trade and broaden the current $9.2 billion U.S. seafood trade deficit. In some states, farmed aquatic animal industries and producers are calling for policies similar to those in place for terrestrial livestock that protect them from animal disease, but do not completely disrupt interstate movement and commerce.

Having recognized the need for aquatic veterinary responses and resources for a number of years, the AVMA is encouraging several initiatives to assist aquatic veterinarians, aquatic animal industries and producers, governments and state veterinary associations. These include: educational programs introducing veterinarians to surveillance and epidemiology of aquatic animal disease, and processes and procedures for determining how to evaluate aquatic animal health and disease status; developing guidance policies dealing with aquatic animal health programs and guidelines for aquatic animal health regulations and control programs (AVMA policy); creating free online directories of aquatic veterinarians and disease diagnostic laboratories for clients, industries, and governments to locate these veterinarians and diagnostic resources (; has attempted to locate and collate state aquatic animal health and disease requirements; and, are in the process of evaluating a possible model Certificate of Veterinary Inspection for Finfish.

State veterinary medical associations may wish to consider informing their members of opportunities and be on the lookout for legislation and regulations involving aquatic animal health and responses to disease. Developments in these areas may impact the veterinary profession or conflict with state veterinary practice acts, and eventually determine the scope of aquatic veterinary practice.

Source:  Staff Research, AVMA Division of Animal and Public Health