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December 15, 2021

Fish medicine gaining veterinarians, who hope for specialty recognition

Leaders of fish medicine associations work to increase recognition from farmers and fellow veterinarians
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A growing corps of veterinarians in the U.S. is working on fish farms, in regulatory agencies that oversee aquaculture, and in aquaculture-adjacent fields such as diagnostics and health products. Participation in the World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association’s Certified Aquatic Veterinarian Program has grown by an average of 30% annually in the past five years.

Dr. Stephen Reichley, WAVMA president, said the organization also adds two or three student WAVMA chapters each year.

The WAVMA and American Association of Fish Veterinarians are working to create a board specialty in fish medicine, which leaders of each organization say could maintain high standards of care and help show fish farmers the value of hiring veterinarians.

Mississippi State student performing fish necropsies
A student at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine performs necropsies in 2016 at the veterinary college’s Aquatic Research and Diagnostic Lab. (Dr. Stephen Reichley/Mississippi State University)

Dr. Johnny Shelley, president of the AAFV and veterinary medical officer in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Seafood Inspection Program, said in a message that the AAFV started work in 2013-14 on developing a recognized specialty that would encompass all of fish medicine, including aquaculture. Since 2020, the AAFV has been working with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners to update the 2014 proposal.

At press time, the AAFV planned to submit the updated proposal to the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners by Jan. 15 with a letter of intent on creation of a recognized veterinary specialty.

Dr. Reichley said that, while some companies and government agencies have struggled recently to attract aquaculture veterinarians, he thinks the current number of such veterinarians is probably enough to meet demand within the U.S. But that demand shows only willingness to hire veterinarians, and “the industry probably needs more than the industry recognizes,” he said.

Outside the U.S., Dr. Reichley said, most aquaculture production companies employ several veterinarians. Within the U.S., progressive production companies focused on animal health and welfare tend to hire veterinarians, but many others see only the costs of veterinarians and not the potential benefits.

Dr. Reichley recommends veterinarians improve how they market their full skill sets to aquaculture farmers and ensure those clients and potential clients see beyond the obligations to have veterinarians provide diagnostic testing, health certificates, and veterinary feed directives.

“Veterinarians and their training can provide tremendous resources and guidance for production companies in biosecurity, improved production practices, identification of production trends, and use of data to make better management decisions,” Dr. Reichley said.

Veterinarians interested, invested in aquaculture

As of 2018, the U.S. had around 2,900 aquaculture farms and about $1.5 billion in annual sales, according to the most recent Department of Agriculture Census of Aquaculture. The sales numbers exclude fish raised in facilities operated by government agencies to, say, restore native species or stock waterways for sport fishing.

The two biggest sectors in terms of sales are food fish production, with $716 million in sales, and mollusk farming, with $442 million.

Figures from the National Marine Fisheries Service within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also indicate U.S. aquaculture production reached 680 million pounds in 2018, and that figure is up about 8% from one year prior, according to the NOAA report Fisheries of the United States 2019, which is the most recent edition available. Atlantic salmon had the highest volume among finfish aquaculture, at 36.4 million pounds sold, and oysters had the highest value among shellfish aquaculture, at 44.7 million pounds.

Jake Veilleux, a fourth-year veterinary student at North Carolina State University, helped form the College of Veterinary Medicine’s student Swine, Poultry, and Aquaculture Club, which has hosted wet labs as well as lectures from veterinarians well established in aquaculture. Each event has drawn 20-25 students.

In addition to food animal–focused students, he said, “I think a lot of the zoo-focused students were coming to our meetings, kind of seeing hatchery medicine and aquaculture as a potential alternative to working in an aquarium.”

Dr. Reichley, who is also associate director of Mississippi State University’s Global Center for Aquatic Food Security, said the university’s aquatic animal health program is going through tremendous growth. He noted that catfish farming is the United States’ largest freshwater aquaculture industry, and Mississippi is its largest producer.

“I get interest all the time from colleges of veterinary medicine that don’t have an aquatic animal health program, that are interested in opportunities for their students, whether that’s delivering virtual lectures or students’ ability to come here for externships or rotations,” he said.

He also noted that he has seen a large number of recent job postings for veterinary technician positions in aquatic animal health. When companies recognize the value of veterinary technicians, he said, that drives growth for veterinarians.

About 20 years ago, Dr. Myron Kebus, Wisconsin’s state aquaculture veterinarian, proposed a program to train and deputize Wisconsin’s veterinarians to work with fish farms across the state. That project eventually led to work with his mentor, Dr. Michael Collins, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, to develop the Fish Health Medicine Certificate Program that was established in 2006 at the university.

More than 600 veterinarians and veterinary students have since gained certification through the program, which the AAFV took over earlier this year. Dr. Kebus estimates 95% of those certified work in the U.S.

“One of the challenges that veterinarians have in fish veterinary medicine is, unlike our colleagues in dog, cat, or poultry sectors, the public—including the fish farmers—aren’t as familiar with what veterinary training encompasses, what our skill assets are, and what we can provide,” Dr. Kebus said.

Convincing fish farmers

This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published a new set of aquaculture plans and standards that involves creating animal health modules through the National Veterinary Accreditation Program, coordinating export certification services, and adding pathogens of aquatic animals into the National Animal Health Reporting System and the National Animal Health Laboratory Network. The document also describes the Comprehensive Aquaculture Health Program Standards, through which veterinarians lead animal disease investigations.

Dr. Esteban Soto Martinez, a professor of aquatic animal health at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said a growing number of companies have been hiring aquatic veterinarians over the past decade. He noted that state and federal regulatory changes during the last 10 years also made veterinarian oversight mandatory for diagnosis and treatment of many diseases.

In January 2017, Food and Drug Administration officials—in agreements with affected pharmaceutical companies—removed over-the-counter access to antimicrobials administered in feed or water. Accessing those drugs for administration to any food animals, including fish or mollusks, now requires a veterinary feed directive or prescription.

Developing a fish medicine specialty within veterinary medicine, Dr. Soto said, creates further opportunities to educate people about the skills of that segment of veterinary medicine. Within the profession, it also could help support mentoring programs, continuing education programs, and a high standard of care.

Dr. Ruth Francis-Floyd, a professor and extension veterinarian with the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine’s Aquatic Animal Health Program and the UF School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatic Sciences, is among faculty members who are teaching aquaculture producers about the importance of establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship and how it can improve a company’s bottom line. The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture is also funding training by Dr. Francis-Floyd and her colleagues at UF—Dr. Roy Yanong and Craig Watson—along with Dr. Kathleen Hartman of USDA APHIS, to train veterinarians in aquaculture practice. Florida’s certificate program in aquatic medicine includes aquaculture as part of a broader aquatic health curriculum at the veterinary college, and it’s one of the most popular certificate programs available to UF veterinary students, she said.

“Interest is certainly there on the veterinary side,” she said.

But she sees constraints on practice from veterinarians and producers.

Mobile practitioners can spend much of their time driving between farms, which cuts into time for services that bring income, Dr. Francis-Floyd said. The standard veterinary curriculum often lacks training specific to aquatic medicine. And fish or mollusk farmers often lack the means or knowledge to invest in veterinary services, even though those services can reduce overall costs and increase production.

“I think most people know it’s probably more profitable to stay in a small animal clinic and do surgery than it is to drive to a farm and do a site visit,” she said.

Dr. Francis-Floyd also noted that COVID-19 hurt many aquaculture companies when restaurants closed, and she knows of some farms that laid off their veterinarians and other animal health staff members.

Veterinarians, students see potential

Dr. Craig A. Harms, a professor with the NC State veterinary college’s Department of Clinical Sciences and Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, sees opportunities for aquatic veterinarians with federal and state government agencies—especially fisheries management roles—as well as in private companies. But he said the U.S. aquaculture industry has lagged in production in comparison with similar industries in other countries, such as Canada, Norway, and Scotland.

“I think maybe there’s a latent demand that, if we do ramp up aquaculture in the way I think we’re going to need to in the future, we will be short of aquatic veterinarians,” he said. “Right now, we’re probably not short. We’re probably just meeting” demand.

Dr. Reichley noted that NOAA officials have been working to find opportunities to expand offshore aquaculture. State and federal regulators, too, have been working to make regulations less burdensome.

Dr. Soto has seen some job openings for veterinary pathologists with an emphasis on aquatic animals, for example, remain open for years. Private, state, and federal hatcheries now need VCPRs for diagnostic services and veterinary leadership for animal health programs.

“Would I say there’s a ton of work out there for everyone? Probably not,” he said. “But are there opportunities out there for fish veterinarians? Absolutely, they are there.”

Veilleux is still deciding where he will fit in, whether that’s at a university, a diagnostic laboratory, or a natural resource agency. He sees potential for aquaculture industry expansion with private and government investment into seafood production as well as wildlife protection and conservation.

“I definitely see it as an exciting time to be getting into aquaculture as a vet,” he said. “And, from what I’ve experienced so far and heard from others, it’s only going to keep growing.”