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Did `fishing day' spread trout disease?

A free fishing day at Fairmont Park may turn out to be anything but free.

Division of Wildlife Resources officials are investigating whether whirling disease - a parasitic disease affecting trout - may have been introduced into the small pond near Sugar House, thereby pushing the spread of the debilitating disease even closer to blue-ribbon fisheries along the Provo River.The contaminated fish may have been planted in the pond during a 1996 "free fishing day" event in which the pond was stocked with 1,200 live trout purchased from a Road Creek Ranch hatchery near Burrville, Piute County, owned by the family of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.

The event, called Gone Fishing, is an annual event sponsored by the Outdoor Resources Foundation to help expose disadvantaged urban youngsters to fishing. About 1,500 children participate each year.

In May 1996, the nonprofit organization acquired the trout from the Burrville hatchery. At about that same time, the Hidden Springs pond near Fountain Green, Sanpete County, also purchased trout from the Burrville hatchery.

Since that time, the trout in the Hidden Springs pond have tested positive for the disease. Tests are also under way on trout sold to another private pond on the Bear Land and Cattle Ranch near Mount Pleasant, Sanpete County, said Russ Lee, fish health specialist with the Utah Department of Agriculture, which regulates all commercial fish operations in the state.

The DWR has assumed the investigation of the Fairmont Park contamination because that pond is not a commercial operation and is regulated by state wildlife laws. The DWR was notified of the Fairmont Park situation only last week, a delay agriculture officials attribute to a misunderstanding.

"It was our understanding there weren't any fish there," Lee said. "With short-term fishing events, the DWR requires any leftover fish are supposed to be removed. We found out later the fish had not been removed."

The possibility the Salt Lake pond has been infected was discovered within the past two weeks by Department of Agriculture officials when they re-examined official documents related to the transportation of live fish from the infected hatchery near Burrville.

On Sept. 23, Deseret News staff writer Ray Grass reported that two sites had been infected, the Hidden Springs pond near Fountain Green and the pond near Mount Pleasant. Both purchased fish from the Burrville hatchery.

At that time, no mention was made by agriculture officials that a third site - the Fairmont Park pond - may have been infected.

"We found it after that first article ran," said Michael Marshall, director of animal husbandry for the Utah Department of Agriculture, the state agency that regulates commercial fish farming. "We went back through all the paperwork and found it."

Whirling disease is transmitted by the tubifex worm, which can be transferred by mud on boots and tires, by birds and animals, or even by someone inadvertently moving an infected fish from one body of water to another.

The Burrville hatchery was originally infected in the early 1990s and was thoroughly disinfected as part of the state's efforts to eradicate the disease. Officials believe the parasite was eradicated from the hatchery, which was tested annually and certified free of disease.

In May 1996, the hatchery delivered fish to Hidden Springs and to Fairmont Park in Salt Lake City. The sale of fish was entirely legal because the Department of Agriculture had certified the facility, and all permits for a transfer of live fish had been obtained.

However, in October 1996, a routine test of the Burrville hatchery revealed the fish were again infected with whirling disease. At that time, the Utah Department of Agriculture did not ask for a list of customers who had purchased live fish that may have been infected.

In January, the Leavitt family released a list of fish deliveries, which included the deliveries to Hidden Springs and Bear Land and Cattle Ranch. Apparently, the third delivery to Fairmont Park was also included in the documentation but went unnoticed by Utah Department of Agriculture officials.

The department has been criticized for responding slowly to the spread of whirling disease. It wasn't until July 1997 - six months after the hatchery tested positive for whirling disease - that Hidden Springs was tested. Tests by Washington State University revealed those fish also were infected.

Test results from fish on the Bear Land and Cattle Ranch are expected within two to three weeks.

The contamination of Fairmont Park is discouraging to wildlife officials who fear that infected fish could go downstream from the pond into the Jordan River, upstream into Utah Lake and then up the Provo River. Whirling disease has also been discovered in Smith Morehouse Reservoir and the Weber River below. The disease could be carried into Rockport Reservoir, making it possible it could be transported into the upper Provo River.

"If that happens, we could end up losing a lot of (Central Utah Project) money," said Ron Goede, fish pathologist and director of the Division of Wildlife Resources' Fish Experiment Station in Logan. "If the Provo gets whirling disease, its quality, according to CUP standards, goes way down."

In the meantime, the Burrville hatchery has been decertified for the sale of live fish. However, the hatchery can continue to raise trout for the slaughter market.

Lee said it is not known how the hatchery became re-infected with the disease, noting that it is unlikely the disease somehow survived the disinfecting process. More likely, the disease was carried into the facility by a bird or in mud carried by workers or ve-hi-cles.

Ironically, Grass was an unwitting participant in the transfer of contaminated fish to Fairmont Park. Grass serves as the Outdoor Resources Foundation's treasurer and facilitated the sale with Road Creek Ranch.

Grass, who has written extensively about the spread of whirling disease, was assured at the time by Road Creek Ranch president Mark Leavitt that the fish were from an uncontaminated hatchery.

Department of Agriculture officials confirmed that they discovered the Fairmont Park sale after Grass broke the story on the other two sites that may be contaminated. "I did not know the fish were from the Burrville hatchery," Grass said.