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A sad-but-true story about whirling disease

The story goes back five years. A group of fishermen, sitting around a table, were remembering how easy it once was for kids to go fishing and how difficult it is now.

They decided to organize a fishing day for kids. Requirements were that it be easy to get to and free. It was determined that Fairmont Park offered the best access, the best water quality and the right size for good fishing.Among my responsibilities was the procurement of fish. We decided to go to the added expense of buying fish rather than ask for state-reared fish. The main reason was to make sure it was free. No one would be turned away from the pond.

And it has been free. Four times. This past May, more than 1,000 kids came and fished for free, were given free hot-dogs, free drinks, free candy bars, free prizes and free fishing lessons from volunteers, more than 50, through a program put together by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

To buy the fish I shopped a list of "clean" hatcheries provided - and certified - by the Utah Department of Agriculture, just as anyone else would do in buying fish. I bought from the UDA-approved hatchery that offered the best price for the most fish. The first year the best price was $1,200 for 1,200 half-pound trout. The second year, 1995, Mark Leavitt quoted me $900 for 1,200 fish three-quarters of a pound and larger. The third year, 1996, he quoted me $1,000 for the same number and size. It was the best buy. This year I bought the fish from a Payson hatchery.

I tell this story because now I'm told the second batch of fish purchased from Leavitt, 1 1/2 years ago, may have been contaminated with whirling disease.

And that came to light after I broke a story taking to task the UDA for sloppy and inept investigation of suspected cases of whirling disease. It took more than a year from the time UDA discovered the disease until it first notified the DWR that it was within a mile of one of its hatcheries.

Leavitt delivered fish to the event in May 1996 from one of his "UDA certified-clean" hatcheries. In October 1996, whirling disease was discovered in his Burrville hatchery. In January, Russ Lee, assistant state veterinarian for UDA, got a list of deliveries from Burrville.

When contacted on Sept. 27, Lee said there were only two deliveries made, one to Hidden Springs near Fountain Green, and the second, but he wasn't sure, in Provo. He submitted a test of Hidden Springs to Washington State University on June 17 and was notified on July 29 by the university that the test was positive. Since the story, he discovered the second site wasn't in Provo, but is actually in Mount Pleasant, and he has since tested the pond.

When asked, Leavitt said he wasn't sure if the Fairmont fish came from Burrville, but he didn't think so. Lee confirmed just two weeks ago, after looking at reports from Burrville, which he has had since the first of the year, that there were only two deliveries and Fairmont wasn't one of them. Assuming Lee had done a thorough job, there was no reason to make mention of or worry about Fairmont.

I had bought fish from a hatchery on a list approved by UDA, from a hatchery certified clean by UDA, in accordance with all of the rules set down and approved by UDA to buy and stock fish, and assured by UDA after a nine-month investigation that there were only two sites of possible contamination, and Fairmont was not one of them.

Coincidentally, the day after the Deseret News story ran, Michael Marshall, state veterinarian/director of animal industry for UDA, and Lee went back through papers and discovered a third delivery - Fairmont Park.

Did I try to cover up the Fairmont delivery? There was no reason to mention Fairmont in the Sept. 29 story, based on expert testimony from Lee that it was not a delivery site. There was no wrongdoing, not on my part, or the owners of Hidden Springs, or the owners of the Mount Pleasant pond. We bought fish based on the blessings of UDA, from a source it had tested and approved. We were assured, based on its list of hatcheries, that we were protected.

I think it can be said that had the story not run two weeks ago, the second delivery site would still be a mystery and Fairmont would not be an issue. The cruelest part of all of this is that it should have come to light a year ago, and it shouldn't have been necessary to point out gross inefficiency by UDA, nor it shouldn't have been necessary to chide Lee and Marshall into looking at the list of deliveries with more than casual interest.

I have, since 1990, followed and written about whirling disease. There's nothing I fear more, with respect to Utah fishing, than whirling disease. It's not certain right now that Fairmont is contaminated, but there's a possibility. Now I find myself, quite possibly, an unwitting participant in the spread of the disease. It's like watching someone slip and fall. You realize there's nothing you can do, but you still feel bad.

In retrospect, I would have paid more for fewer fish; I wouldn't have bought from the Leavitt hatcheries; and I wouldn't have trusted the UDA's list. But then there wouldn't have been a free fishing day and I can honestly say I haven't enjoyed a day more.

My regrets are that this whole thing had to happen and that, as it looks now, this past Gone Fishin' event may be the last. I'll miss it.