- First introduced to the USA in 1958, Myxobolus cerebralis, the parasite responsible for whirling disease in salmonids, has since spread across the country causing severe declines in wild trout populations in the intermountain west. Recent development of risk assessment models used to assess the likelihood and consequences of exotic parasite introduction, have strengthened the process of science-based decision-making in aquatic animal health. In the case of M. cerebralis, it is necessary to use a risk assessment model with two unique segments that clearly address the distinct life stages and respective hosts of the parasite separately. The studies described examine the probability of M. cerebralis introduction and establishment for two regions: the state of Alaska, and the Willamette River basin, Oregon.
The Alaska risk assessment was based on the assumption that the parasite did not already occur in the state. However, in the process of validating this assumption, we documented the first polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detection of the parasite in the state. The pathogen was identified in hatchery rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) from the Anchorage area. Although this is the first detection of the parasite in Alaska, clinical whirling disease has never been documented in the state.
To qualitatively assess the risk of further spread of M. cerebralis in Alaska, four potential routes of dissemination were examined: movement of fish by humans, natural dispersal (via migratory birds and stray anadromous salmon), recreational activities, and commercial seafood processing. This research indicates the most likely pathway for M. cerebralis transport in Alaska is human movement of fish.
In the Willamette River basin, Oregon, introduction of M. cerebralis has already occurred, though establishment appears limited to a single private hatchery. Introduction in this region was considered the most likely to occur as a result of human movements of fish. Straying anadromous salmonids were also assessed and were present in higher numbers than predicted. However, they were not infected with the parasite, and thus the probability for introduction by this route is low. The probability of introduction of the parasite varies throughout the Willamette River basin. Areas with the highest probability for M. cerebralis introduction were identified as the Clackamas and Santiam River subbasins. The Clackamas River has already experienced an introduction of the parasite, has the largest concentration of hatcheries (state, federal, and private), has a popular sport fishery, and is the closest major tributary to the enormous piscivorous bird-populations in the Columbia River estuary. The Santiam subbasin has a popular sport fishery, received the highest number of stray fish in the Willamette River basin, and has the second largest concentration of hatcheries in the Willamette River basin.
Unique from introduction, establishment of the parasite is dependent upon several environmental and biological factors including: water temperatures, spatial/temporal overlap of hosts, and the distribution and genetic composition of the parasite’s invertebrate host, Tubifex tubifex. The distribution, genetic composition and susceptibility of T. tubifex, were considered the most important factor in the ability of M. cerebralis to establish in both systems. Surveys of oligochaete populations were conducted in both study regions.
In Alaska, T. tubifex was not detected from the southeast region and the apparent lack of appropriate tubificid hosts may prevent establishment in that part of the state. However, 4 lineages (I, III, IV, and VI) of the species were identified from southcentral Alaska. Lineage IV has not been previously been described in North America and its susceptibility to M. cerebralis was unknown. When lineage IV T. tubifex and 3 mixed-lineage (I, III, IV and VI) groups were exposed to M. cerebralis, only lineage III became infected under our experimental conditions. Thus, if the parasite were dispersed, conditions are appropriate for establishment and propagation of the parasite life cycle in southcentral Alaska, although detrimental effects on fish populations may be reduced as a result of the presence of non-susceptible lineages of T. tubifex. The probability of further establishment in this area is greatest in Ship Creek, where the abundance of susceptible T. tubifex, the presence of susceptible rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and the proximity to the known area of infection make conditions particularly appropriate.
Similar to findings in Alaska, the Willamette River basin, Oregon also supports populations of susceptible T. tubifex. If the pathogen were introduced, probability of establishment is high in certain areas of the basin as all conditions are appropriate for propagation of the parasite life cycle. Tributaries to the mainstem Willamette River have the highest probability of establishment as these areas have the greatest numbers of susceptible T. tubifex. However, the abundance of resistant strains of T. tubifex could mitigate the effects of M. cerebralis if introduced.
Management recommendations to reduce the likelihood of parasite dissemination are similar for Oregon and Alaska since human movement of fish and angler activities were considered the most likely routes of introduction for both regions. Based on this research, steps should also be taken to limit human movement of fish, whether by restricting carcass planting for stream enrichment in Oregon, or by prohibiting use of fish heads as bait in southcentral Alaska. The states should also allot resources to angler education and awareness of the effects of angler activity and recreation on dispersal of M. cerebralis. This could be done using a combination of brochures and signage at boat ramps describing how to prevent spread of aquatic nuisance species.