06/22/2017 12:19 EDT | Updated 06/23/2017 06:22 EDT

Twist and turn: Alberta lab dedicated to study whirling disease in fish

VEGREVILLE, Alta. — A potentially deadly fish disease observed in Alberta last year will be studied at a new lab dedicated to preventing further spread of the parasite that causes it.

The lab in Vegreville is believed to be the first in Canada exclusively dedicated to testing for and preventing whirling disease.

The disease is not harmful to humans, but causes trout and whitefish to swim in a whirling pattern and die prematurely.

Whirling disease was first observed last summer in several Banff National Park lakes.

It has since spread into the Oldman, Bow and Red Deer river basins.

The lab in Vegreville will have six full-time technicians to process samples for expedited testing at the University of Alberta.

It is being funded from $9.3 million set aside in this year's provincial budget to prevent further spread of the disease.

The province began collecting test samples last August when whirling disease was first discovered at Johnson Lake. Since then, more than 6,000 samples have been collected and tested from six of Alberta's watersheds, as well as from provincial hatcheries and commercial fish farms.

Banff National Park is home to some of the last pure strains of westslope cutthroat trout anywhere in the world and the Bow River is a world-class sport-fishing destination.

Whirling disease can be transmitted to other water bodies by fish and through equipment used for swimming, paddling, boating and angling.