National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory System

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Video: Achieving Excellence in Regulatory Science - ISO 17025 Laboratory Accreditation

Learn about our laboratory system and the facilities in British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

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Laboratory system functions

The National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory System functions as a centre of expertise by:

  • providing quality:
    • diagnostics
    • targeted research
    • sound scientific advice
  • supporting aquatic animal health in Canada
  • developing internationally recognized standardized diagnostic tests for designated pathogens

Credible national laboratory systems support internationally recognized health programs around the world for animals on land and at sea. These systems deliver test results for pathogen detection that are:

  • reliable
  • accurate
  • consistent

Laboratory testing is based on the international standards of the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Continuing commitments to technology development and targeted research strengthens this capability, and participating countries benefit from:

  • a responsive integral domestic disease management program
  • the ability to defend their certification of exported animals/products
  • sound scientific foundations to protect their animal populations from the introduction of pathogens

Fisheries and Oceans Canada designed the National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory System with this capability in mind.

Our laboratories

Our system is comprised of 4 laboratories across Canada, which are the:

  1. Pacific Biological Station's Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory in Nanaimo, British Columbia
  2. Freshwater Institute's Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba
  3. Gulf Fisheries Centre's Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory in Moncton, New Brunswick
  4. Gulf Biocontainment Unit's Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

The first 3 labs provide diagnostic testing and research. However, the Gulf's laboratory is a level 3 containment laboratory capable of performing research on foreign exotic pathogens.

Each diagnostic testing laboratory conducts tests for the National Aquatic Animal Health Program and the Fish Health Protection Regulations, which includes pathogen testing on:

  • molluscs
  • crustaceans
  • wild and farmed finfish

There are currently 3 surveillance programs underway for the National Aquatic Animal Health Program in British Columbia (Pacific salmon and shellfish) and Quebec (freshwater fish).

The Pacific Biological Station and Gulf Fisheries Centre also conduct pathogen testing for the National Code on Introductions and Transfers of Aquatic Organisms.

Our Fisheries and Aquaculture Management Division conducts a separate initiative outside the National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory Systems for diagnostic testing for the aquaculture industry in British Columbia.

Research and development

Developing science and technology is integral to our performance in validating diagnostic detection methods for significant fish pathogens. Laboratory scientists and technicians fulfill our responsibilities for conducting:

  • diagnostic testing
  • targeted research
  • research to improve detection techniques and disease controls

Each diagnostic laboratory is designated as a national reference laboratory for specific pathogens and may undertake screening or surveillance for these pathogens. However, the responsible national reference laboratory must validate and confirm any positive test result.

Our laboratories don't test for pathogens of human health concerns. This is the role of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Priorities

Our system supports targeted aquatic animal health research priorities, established with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency through the Centre for Aquatic Animal Health Research and Diagnostics. This research includes:

  • examining high priority pathogens
  • exploring the susceptibility of aquatic animals to specific pathogens
  • developing and validating new diagnostic test methods for detecting infectious disease agents in aquatic animals

Other programs that fund aquatic animal health research and/or require diagnostic testing can benefit from the scientific expertise of our:

  • scientists
  • technicians
  • laboratory facilities

This includes the Program for Aquaculture Regulatory Research and the Aquaculture Collaborative Research and Development Program. We also conduct non-regulatory diagnostic testing for the Salmonid Enhancement Program under the Habitat and Enhancement Branch.

Pacific Biological Station Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

The Pacific Biological Station located in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The Pacific Biological Station located in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, British Columbia, was established in 1908 and is the oldest fisheries research centre on the Pacific coast. It's the principal research centre for:

  • British Columbia
  • Western Arctic
  • Northeast Pacific Ocean

Since 1960, it's provided diagnostic services to support many different clients and programs, including:

  • First Nations
  • Pacific Region research initiatives
  • the Federal Hatchery system under the Salmonid Enhancement Program

The Pacific Biological Station laboratory has the capability to employ a wide variety of test methods to detect pathogens, such as:

  • virology
  • histology
  • tissue culture
  • molecular biology

Validating these techniques in conjunction with a strong quality assurance program is key to providing reliable and consistent results.

Researchers transfer national reference laboratory pathogen detection techniques to other laboratories. They also develop containment and quarantine standards.

Research

Aquatic animal health research at the Pacific Biological Station focuses on pathogens of relevance to wild and cultured finfish and shellfish within the Pacific Region. Scientists at the station also undertake regulatory and collaborative research in support of aquaculture.

In addition, they apply genomics technologies to better understand pathogen diversity and host-pathogen interactions in finfish and shellfish. These support projects such as Genome BC and the Genomics Research and Development Initiative.

Researchers

The Pacific Biological Station Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory researchers include:

Freshwater Institute Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

Freshwater Institute Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

Freshwater Institute Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

The Freshwater Institute is located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It serves as the regional headquarters for our Central and Arctic Region and has operated a fish health program since 1973. Their aquatic animal health laboratory performs:

  • diagnostic testing using a number of different methods, such as:
    • virology
    • serology
    • biotechnology
    • genetics-based testing
  • classical microbiological and biochemical assays

The laboratory provides quality diagnostic services and aquatic animal disease research to support:

  • wild stock enhancement activities
  • surveillance of regional fish disease
  • surveys of wild regional fish populations
  • fish health certification under the Fish Health Protection Regulations to regional aquaculture facilities

Research

Analyst analyzing results of a qPCR run. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Analyst analyzing results of a qPCR run. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

This laboratory engages in scientific research initiatives related to reportable, notifiable, or other diseases that impact the health of wild and farmed finfish. Projects are designed to:

  • identify emerging viruses in finfish, particularly in endangered species
  • investigate the distribution and genetic relatedness of these viruses among wild fish populations

Addressing these specific knowledge and technology gaps may lead to a better understanding of the biology of these viruses and their impact on wild populations of fish.

A new widely used and accepted modern molecular diagnostics tool is the genetic-based assay. It's also referred to as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). These assays are part of a suite of diagnostic assays used within the laboratory system for screening aquatic animals for infectious disease agents because they are:

  • fast
  • specific
  • highly sensitive

Scientists at the laboratory are leading studies to develop new or modified qPCR assays capable of detecting IPNv or KHv. They're evaluating the assays as fit for purpose through validation studies that establish the analytical and diagnostic performance of each test method.

The assays recognize isolates of IPNv and KHv commonly found in North America. This enables us to screen samples within several days rather than the 3 weeks currently required for completion of classical cell culture techniques.

Viral pathogens in native and colonizing fish species in Arctic ecosystems

The goals of the Arctic ecosystems native and colonizing fish species viral pathogens project include:

  • establishing a normative baseline for future monitoring activities
  • assessing viral pathogens in native and colonizing fish species in Arctic ecosystems, including their:
    • prevalence
    • distribution
    • emergence
  • developing a systems approach for managing fish health in the region through understanding the impact that key global drivers have on infectious diseases of fish

This will lead to a better understanding of where we need to focus our surveillance and risk mitigation efforts. It will help us to reduce the threat of disease emergence due to climate change in the western Arctic.

Addressing disease risks of lake sturgeon in Manitoba

The project addressing disease risks of lake sturgeon in Manitoba aims to instruct the design and development of an infectious disease management plan.

The project objectives include:

  • assessing lake sturgeon hatchery:
    • transmission patterns
    • virus prevalence in conjunction with virus infection
  • identifying the virus and sequencing its genome
  • developing and validating molecular detection methods capable of recognizing the virus
  • spatial and temporal distribution of the virus and its genetic relatedness within and among lake sturgeon populations considered to be endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

Researchers

Researchers at the Freshwater Institute Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory include:

Gulf Fisheries Centre Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

Gulf Fisheries Centre Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

Gulf Fisheries Centre Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

The Gulf Fisheries Centre is located in Moncton, New Brunswick and is the regional headquarters for our Gulf Region. This laboratory provides quality diagnostic testing and aquatic animal pathogen research to support:

  • wild stock enhancement activities
  • determining mortalities of wild shellfish and finfish
  • shellfish introductions and transfers and harvesting
  • fish health certification of aquaculture facilities under the authority of the Fish Health Protection Regulations

The aquatic animal health laboratory is operated by the Aquatic Animal Health Section within the Aquatic Health Division of the Science Branch. The section groups are each responsible for the delivery of different diagnostic tests, including:

  • the Fish Health Unit
  • the Shellfish Health Unit
  • the Molecular Biology Unit

The laboratory is responsible for the development and validation of new diagnostic tests for the detection of pathogens in aquatic animals. In addition, scientists and researchers at the laboratory work to increase the knowledge on:

  • host-parasite interactions
  • disease control mechanisms
  • pathogen strain differentiation
  • species susceptibility to pathogens

Fish Health Unit

Since 1975, the Fish Health Unit has tested fish on Canada's East Coast to detect pathogens. The most common tests performed by the group include:

  • necropsy
  • bacteriology
  • virus isolation

The unit provides testing under the Fish Health Protection Regulations for over 30 aquaculture facilities located in various parts of:

  • Quebec
  • Nova Scotia
  • Newfoundland
  • New Brunswick
  • Prince Edward Island

The unit also performs testing to support wild stock enhancement of salmonids in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Shellfish Health Unit

The Shellfish Health Unit focuses on disease agents of molluscs. To detect pathogens which may impact the health of shellfish, the unit performs necropsies and histopathological analysis using light microscopy and other tests, such as bacteriology.

The unit has led an oyster health monitoring program in the Maritime provinces for over a decade.

Molecular Biology Unit

The Gulf Fisheries Centre has had molecular diagnostic capability since 2001. They currently conduct testing in conjunction with the fish and shellfish unit.

The Molecular Biology Unit specializes in using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect specific pathogens within a sample. The group uses quantitative PCR, also known as qPCR, to detect the RNA (for certain viruses) or DNA of a pathogen.

The group also has other molecular tools at its disposal.

Research

The Gulf Fisheries Centre's research on aquatic animal health:

  • focuses on pathogens relevant to wild and cultured finfish and shellfish within the Atlantic Region of Canada
  • supports the National Aquatic Animal Health Program by conducting research to develop and improve diagnostic processes

As part of the National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory System, this centre employs a wide variety of test methods to detect pathogens, such as:

  • virology
  • histology
  • parasitology
  • bacteriology
  • tissue culture
  • molecular biology

Validation of detection techniques in conjunction with a strong quality assurance program is key to ensuring test results are:

  • reliable
  • accurate
  • consistent

Gulf Fisheries Centre laboratory researchers:

  • apply genomics technologies to better understand:
    • pathogen diversity
    • how various isolates affect animals differently
    • host-pathogen interactions in finfish and shellfish, such as the response of animals to disease
  • assist in transferring detection technique technology for the pathogens in their reference laboratory
  • undertake aquatic animal health research to support aquaculture, like:

Researchers

Researchers at the Gulf Fisheries Centre Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory include:

Gulf Biocontainment Unit Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory

The Gulf Biocontainment Unit's Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory is located in a Canadian Food Inspection Agency laboratory in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. It's affiliated with our Gulf Fisheries Centre.

The biocontainment unit laboratory contributions include:

  • providing scientific advice
  • testing related to high-risk pathogens
  • developing research and diagnostic tests

The laboratory is a level 3 containment laboratory for live aquatic animal work. It is one of few aquatic animal biocontainment laboratories in the world able to undertake studies with exotic and serious aquatic animal disease-causing agents.

This certification was a critical step toward enabling us to:

  • investigate new or emerging diseases
  • study aquatic animal disease interactions in a controlled environment
  • safely conduct research into virtually any aquatic animal disease or pathogen

It's the only facility in the system approved for live trials with exotic pathogens.

Biocontainment Unit

The biocontainment unit transfers the diagnostic tests they develop and validate to the other 3 diagnostic system laboratories, where they're integrated into routine diagnostic use.

The biocontainment laboratory is a modern facility with sophisticated back-up systems to support:

  • laboratory bench work
  • a variety of different animal holding systems
  • extremely stringent sterilization processes for laboratory wastewater and laboratory-generated waste material

Experimental challenge models developed in the facility laboratory are useful when there is no source of naturally affected animals available for use in test development and validation. Animal holding facilities can operate a variety of conditions required for optimal animal care, such as:

  • controlled lighting
  • freshwater to full saltwater systems
  • very cold to warm environments (5°C to 35°C)
  • closely monitored (and adjustable) water quality parameters

The unit can hold:

  • finfish
  • shellfish
  • bivalves

Biocontainment

Biocontainment
Wastewater stored in sealed tanks awaiting sterilization. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Wastewater stored in sealed tanks awaiting sterilization. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Biocontainment refers to the use multiple levels of barriers to prevent the release of infectious material while permitting work with live pathogens. These barriers include specialized:

  • facilities
  • equipment
  • procedures

High level biocontainment uses sophisticated physical strategies, such as:

  • air flow and filtration
  • sterilization processes for water and laboratory waste
  • specialized design features of:
    • floors
    • walls
    • ceilings

The design features complementary and redundant arrangements that assist in preventing the escape of potentially harmful agents to the outside environment.

Physical barriers work together with specific protocols that are followed when anyone or anything enters or leaves containment, including:

  • staff
  • supplies
  • animals
  • samples
  • waste material

High-level biocontainment is a term commonly applied to level 3 and level 4 containment labs.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency Office of Biohazard Containment and Safety issues the level 3 biocontainment designation for facilities working with aquatic animal pathogens. Biocontainment certification is based on guidelines in the Containment Standards for Facilities Handling Aquatic Animal Pathogens.

This designation allows our researchers to:

  • work with high-risk pathogens in live animals
  • prepare inactivated (no longer infectious) samples for further study at the laboratory bench level in a safe manner

Compared to laboratories doing non-animal bench work, level 3 laboratories used for live animal work have specialized requirements for:

  • waste treatment
  • disinfection procedures
  • the movement within the facility of:
    • people
    • animals
    • pathogens

Our level 2 containment laboratories include those at the:

  • Freshwater Institute
  • Gulf Fisheries Centre
  • Pacific Biological Station

Research

A biological safety cabinet, which is a specialized containment structure used when manipulating infectious materials. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

A biological safety cabinet, which is a specialized containment structure used when manipulating infectious materials. Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Researchers at this laboratory carry out research using shrimp and lobster. They're developing test procedures and investigating the susceptibility to selected disease agents.

This research assists in satisfying trading partners that Canadian exports of crustacean products (especially lobster) are free of serious exotic disease-causing agents. Otherwise, the mere presence of an unwanted disease agent, whether or not it's actually causing disease at that moment, can become a serious trade issue.

Finfish test development and disease susceptibility

In addition to looking at the crustacean disease agents, we're also investigating several serious finfish viral diseases. Emerging viral disease agents include those in Canadian waters, such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, and those exotic to Canadian territory, such as salmon pancreas disease virus (SPDv).

Various strains of viral hemorrhagic septicemia have been reported from across Canada in fresh and salt-water environments. It infects a wide variety of fish species. SPDv causes disease in Atlantic salmon. Strains from both of these viral agents have been investigated using salmon and trout experimental models at the Charlottetown laboratory. These projects are in support of the National Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory System projects involving our other facilities and research scientists.

This laboratory will establish future experimental finfish host-pathogen model systems. This will include work with exotic disease causing agents, such as:

  • Oncorhynchus masou virus (OMv)
  • red sea bream iridovirus disease (RSIVD)
  • epizootic haematopoietic necrosis virus (EHNv)

Post-mortem services and molecular analysis

Not all research and test development involves live animal projects. The biocontainment laboratory is also well equipped for bench-level molecular analysis and post-mortem services, both operated within biocontainment-designated areas in the building.

Pathology expertise complements work done at the molecular level. It's a usual starting point for investigations into unusual disease presentations that may not be immediately recognizable or detectable by current molecular tests.

Researchers

The Gulf Biocontainment Unit Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory researchers include:

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