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The role of the OIE in aquatic animal diseases

Statistics published by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) show that inland capture fisheries production follows the general trend of most of the world's sea fishing areas, which have apparently reached their maximum potential, with the majority of stocks being fully exploited. In contrast, growth in aquaculture production has shown the opposite trend. Whilst capture fisheries production has increased only very slightly, output from aquaculture (farmed fish, shellfish, and algae) increased significantly from just over 13 million tonnes in 1990 to 33 million tonnes in 1999. Inland and marine aquaculture production progressed by about 8% per year during the 1970s and 1980s, but has increased by 10% per year since 1990.

Disease outbreaks cause significant losses in aquaculture production and trade and are having an impact on the economic development of some countries. An indication of the magnitude of economic losses is illustrated by farm surveys conducted in sixteen Asian countries, which show that annual losses due to disease in the region total more than USD 3 billion. Probably the most striking example of disease spread through international trade and consequential major economic loss in aquaculture is white spot disease in farmed shrimp. The disease first emerged in 1991 in a shrimp farm in an OIE Member Country and apparently has since spread to most other shrimp-farming countries of Asia and the Americas. This has been attributed by some experts to the uncontrolled international trade in live shrimp for aquaculture purposes and in dead shrimp for processing. Some OIE Member Countries with shrimp farming activities continue to be free of the disease almost certainly due to strict controls on imports of live shrimp and uncooked dead shrimp, in particular for use as fish bait.

The adverse social, economic and environmental consequences of uncontrolled movement of live aquatic animals and their products have increased global awareness of the need for improved health management standards. The serious impact of unrestricted international movement of aquatic animals has led to the development of health certification and risk reduction methodologies. The International Aquatic Animal Health Code and the Diagnostic Manual of Aquatic Animal Diseases are published by the OIE and provide recommendations and standards for reducing the spread of specific aquatic animal diseases considered to be of significance for international trade. They are recognised by the World Trade Organization as the international standards for trade.

In 1960, the OIE established the Fish Diseases Commission (FDC) to deal specifically with the increase of fish diseases as aquaculture expanded world-wide. In 1988, the scope of the FDC was extended to include diseases and pathogens of molluscs and crustaceans..

The members of this Commission are elected by the International Committee of the OIE. The Commission is assisted by the OIE Collaborating Centres and Reference Laboratories that deal with aquatic animal diseases and continuously provide OIE Member Countries with high-level scientific input.

One of the primary roles of the FDC is to develop aquatic animal health standards and recommendations, which are then submitted to OIE Member Countries for approval. Other objectives of the OIE through the FDC are to increase general awareness of disease problems associated with trade in live aquatic animals and their products, and to promote means for diagnosis, control or prevention. In support of these objectives, the OIE co-ordinates research on communicable animal diseases for which international co-operation is essential and collects information on epizootics and control measures applied by OIE Member Countries. The communication of animal health information to OIE Member Countries occurs through the official Delegate to the OIE.

Animal welfare issues are coming under increasing public scrutiny, not only for terrestrial but also for aquatic animals. Guidance on animal welfare issues is one of the OIE's responsibilities and also needs to be given attention by national authorities in its Member Countries in order to reduce negative effects of modern fish farming on the welfare of the animals.

The new OIE Strategic Plan states that the Office will be increasingly committed to respond rapidly to the needs of Member Countries, which will include providing more new standards, guidelines and recommendations on how to combat aquatic animal diseases. The FDC now meets longer and more often to respond to these needs. The output of this increased activity can be monitored on the OIE web site (

This response by the FDC is possible due to the committed involvement of the members of the Commission and its President, as well as the staff of the OIE Collaborating Centres and Reference Laboratories.

Bernard Vallat

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