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  • Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory

Aquatic Diagnostic LaboratoryIn general, few veterinarians focus on disease testing and treatment of aquatic animals, yet there is a large and growing need for disease screening, diagnostic services and treatment options. For example, live fish and shellfish transported across state lines must be certified as free of specific diseases, in keeping with state regulations. This is especially important since treatment options for aquaculture operations are extremely limited and quarantine is not possible once animals are placed in estuaries. The need for environmental field testing for the presence of fish and shellfish disease is growing and regulations requiring such testing are becoming more common. From a research perspective, the currently accepted methods of disease detection rely on traditional culture and histopathological techniques, but DNA screening and modern molecular techniques are developing rapidly. These can be faster and more accurate, but there is a critical need to conduct comparative studies that “ground-truth” the new techniques for acceptance by regulatory agencies and for continued validation of findings using traditional histopathology. The need for these services is becoming more widely known as demonstrated by the recent creation of the WAMA (World Aquatic Veterinary Medical Association) but Veterinary Schools continue to focus primarily on mammalian animal health (cat, dog, cow, horse). From both the wild harvest and aquaculture perspectives, aquatic animal health remains a critically underserved segment of commercial production and the need for diagnostic services and the development of treatment options can only grow as assessment and production criteria are refined and the regulatory structure tightens.

Aquatic Diagnostic LaboratoryIn 2009, with funding from a USDA grant to Leavitt and Scott, we established a Program in Aquatic Veterinary Health, and hired Dr. Roxanna Smolowitz as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Marine Biology to lead and direct the growth of this program. The grant was intended to strengthen our capacity to meet the growing national and international need for individuals trained in fish and shellfish disease. Over the past four years, Dr. Smolowitz and her laboratory have provided a unique and valuable perspective to all of the biology and marine biology programs. In addition to teaching, she has organized what is effectively a high functioning medical laboratory that provides medical and veterinary training opportunities to our students. She has become a tremendous resource for pre-med and pre-vet students; oversees a wide variety of student research including three senior thesis projects, and has influenced a growing number of our students who are now seeking or attending veterinary programs. She collaborates widely; participates in numerous grants, and has generated significant funding by providing diagnostic services to the aquaculture and regulatory community in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Hers is one of only two such laboratories on the east coast (the other in Maine) that provides similar diagnostic services. The funds generated are being used to support her technician, the laboratory and the student assistants she hires throughout the year. Without trying, she has on-going commitments that should generate ~$50,000 per year, and we are working to convince the state of Rhode Island to provide on-going support for a much needed shellfish disease field survey. She sits on the RI Biosecurity Board; is our Veterinarian of record for the RWU Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), and has attracted the prestigious Aquavet Program ( to our campus. She is also an elected member of the Aquatic Veterinary Medical Committee, one of the veterinary advisory boards for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Diseases of bivalves are currently the primary focus of the diagnostic laboratory.  “Dermo” (Perkinsus marinus) causes disease in Eastern oysters and is responsible for significant mortality in oyster stocks.  It is a disease that can halt movement of oysters over state lines and between bodies of water in a state.  The laboratory has developed a quantitative real time PCR method that detects the infectious agent in oyster tissues.  The laboratory is in the process of developing in-house methods for the detection of the other main diseases of oysters and hard clams.  Most recently, Dr. Smolowitz worked with extension agents to identify diseases in hard clams that resemble neoplasia of the circulating “blood” cells. 

Aquatic Diagnostic LaboratoryThe laboratory is also providing diagnostic services to fish culturists and fishery regulators. Diagnostic and treatment services for koi and goldfish culturists are being used by local hobbyists. Disease diagnostic capacity for wild fish is being offered to both Massachusetts and Rhode Island researchers and regulators to help identify causes of fish kills and to identify abnormalities found in fish collected in scientific fish collections. For instance, the laboratory recently identified ichthyophonus (a genus of unicellular parasites) in depleted stocks of yellow flounder caught during a research cruise. 

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