21,000 fish die in ‘catastrophic failure’ at California Research Center

About 21,000 fish at an aquatic research center at the University of California, Davis, died from exposure to chlorine, in what the university described as a “catastrophic failure” that shocked researchers and would significantly delay their studies.

The university said in a statement it would investigate “where our process failed” and would launch an independent external review.

“We share the sadness of the faculty, staff and students who have worked to care for, study and conserve these animals,” said UC Davis.

The fish were found dead Tuesday in multiple tanks at the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture, which sits on five acres and houses research programs focused on preserving California’s aquatic life and supporting sustainable aquaculture production, according to the center’s website.

Laurie Brignolo, executive director of the Research and Teaching Animal Care Program at UC Davis, said Sunday that university officials believe the source of the chlorine is a chlorination system used to decontaminate water with fish pathogens.

If that was indeed the source, university officials weren’t sure how the chlorine got into the aquariums. One possible explanation would be that there was a backup in the water pipe system that was causing the chlorine to move the wrong way, Ms Brignolo said.

UC Davis said it has an obligation to “understand what happened and make changes to the facility” to prevent such a failure from happening again.

The university said many of its other aquatic research facilities “do not have a similar potential for chlorine exposure, but some do,” and that it would assess the risk.

The centre, which was built in the 1950s, had never seen such an “all-encompassing loss” of fish, Ms Brignolo said. Workers are conducting “daily quality assurance on the pump and the water passing through it,” she added. The night before the loss, around 21,000 fish were checked, she said.

However, enough chlorine leaked into the tanks overnight to contain a similar level to that found in tap water – a dangerously high level for fish, Ms Brignolo said. Fish should not be kept in water that contains even small amounts of the chemical.

The chlorine damaged the delicate gills and skin of the center’s various species of fish, including the endangered green and white sturgeon and chinook salmon.

Almost all the fish were dead within 12 hours.

Ms Brignolo said she received an email Tuesday morning from the center’s manager, who was one of the first people there that day. The manager saw thousands of fish dead, Ms Brignolo said, calling it a “tragic loss”.

The workers at the center went tank by tank, counting casualties. Only about 100 fish had survived.

“It’s absolutely devastating,” she said.

Some of the researchers and graduate students had used the fish to study the effects of disease and environmental changes on specific species.

The huge loss of fish at the center won’t completely halt the researchers’ studies, but it will set them back significantly, some for years, Ms Brignolo said.

The loss has also taken an emotional toll on the people who work there. The university has set up a bereavement management program for the students and staff affected.

“Their job is to provide a safe environment for several fish that are used for research purposes,” Ms Brignolo said. “And it’s an absolute sense of failure.”

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