Arkansas baitfish farmers are working with state officials to create a voluntary fish health certification program that would ensure the movement of their fish to other states without running afoul of local or federal regulations.

The program is expected to take effect in early 2007, according to Nathan Stone, fisheries specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Fish farmers in years past have encountered roadblocks in selling their baitfish in other states, he said. Arkansas supplies 85 percent of the farmed baitfish used in the United States.

“The big fish farmers who ship their fish all over the country are vulnerable to the state regulations about the movement of fish,” says Stone.

In response, he said, many of the state's baitfish farmers began participating in a voluntary program of fish health inspections, some for as long as 10 years. The current inspection program is based on tough standards developed for the export of U.S. fish to other countries.

“The stringent international standards are designed as an export inspection program for fish shipped to other countries, not a farm certification program,” Stone said.

“But farmers have been using it as a certification program to help in moving their fish interstate.”

The overriding concern by state governments and the federal government in recent years is the fear that diseased fish from other states could spread their diseases, Stone noted.

But some states have used that as an excuse to keep Arkansas fish out of their states, according to Andrew Goodwin, professor/associate director of the Fish Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“Oftentimes, it's more protectionist than anything else,” said Goodwin.

There are legitimate health concerns. The USDA recently halted the sale of fish caught in the Great Lakes area because of an epidemic of VHS, a virus that has killed a considerable amount of wild baitfish and other important fish species.

The Arkansas Bait and Ornamental Fish Growers Association asked the state to create a certification program that would certify that their fish are free of disease.

An example of how successful a fish health inspection program can be happened in 2002 when spring viremia of carp, a serious exotic disease, was found in North Carolina fish. Goodwin's lab found the disease.

“An Arkansas farm was doing business with a North Carolina farm. When the question arose of where the disease came from, the Arkansas farm was off the hook immediately because of its inspection history.

“That raised interest in a state certification program,” Goodwin said.

Under an inspection program, Arkansas baitfish farmers would pay $1 a year per acre to the State Plant Board, for their costs. Disease surveillance samples will be submitted to the lab at UAPB for analysis.

The state will be responsible for inspecting farms, checking records and certifying that farmers meet the standards. The Plant Board has considerable experience in similar programs for commodities.