Call them fish detectives. Using high-tech equipment, staff and students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff examine fish to make sure they’re not carrying any significant viruses or unwanted hitchhikers.

They work in the fish disease diagnostic lab similar to fictional labs seen on television shows like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) Miami and NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). However, these real-life investigators at the university’s Aquaculture/Fisheries Center focus on finding invading diseases rather than criminals.

UAPB has satellite labs in Lake Village, Lonoke and Newport. The labs are the only providers of fish disease diagnostic services in Arkansas and the UAPB lab was one of the first in the country approved by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to inspect fish for export.

The four labs screen hundreds of fish per week. Staff and students on the Pine Bluff campus recently examined 1,400 baitfish in a single day.

“We diagnose the causes of fish kills and also do the inspections of healthy fish that farmers need to ship fish from state to state,” said Emily Marecaux, an Extension associate. “Some of the tests that we use were developed here at UAPB and are now used in other laboratories around the world.”

“It’s pretty interesting,” said Marvin Simmons, a student lab tech from Marion, Ark. “We get to see a wide variety of different fish species. We do tests for different viruses.”

As part of the screening, lab techs test fish DNA samples for specific viruses.

“It’s just like on CSI except, in our tests, the criminals are viruses and the courts are the USDA and state regulators,” said Andrew Goodwin, a professor and associate director of the UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center.

During a recent round of tests, the only virus discovered was a minor one --- American grass carp reovirus (AGCRV). It’s one the UAPB lab is very familiar with since it was first discovered in the lab. AGCRV is a common virus and there’s no evidence that it causes disease in baitfish, Goodwin said.

Scientists at the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center fish labs play an important role in pinpointing aquaculture threats — whether the culprits are viruses, water quality problems or nuisance plants and animals.

“When farmers have fish health or pond management problems, they call their local fish lab and we can diagnose fish diseases and get them expert advice,” Goodwin said.

Since Arkansas is the largest producer of baitfish and second largest producer of catfish in the nation, the labs inspect fish so that they can move interstate and internationally.

“Our job is to diagnose diseases in sick fish and to inspect healthy fish so that farmers can get the fish to where they’re going,” Goodwin said. “The farmers must prove to regulators that their fish are safe.”

UAPB’s Aquaculture/Fisheries Center has worked closely with the Arkansas Bait and Ornamental Fish Growers Association and the Arkansas Agriculture Department to develop a certified bait and ornamental fish program. Fish produced under this program are certified by the Arkansas Agriculture Department to be raised under stringently controlled conditions. They are also certified to be free of the most feared fish diseases and aquatic nuisance species such as zebra mussels and hydrilla plants.

More than 90 percent of Arkansas bait and ornamental fish are raised under the program, which is voluntary for fish farmers.

For more information about the Arkansas Bait and Ornamental Fish Certification Program, visit www.safebaitfish.org.