Ichthyophonus is a fungal-like pathogen that causes disease in a wide range of fish. Pacific herring are susceptible to infection and outbreaks characterized by severe infection intensities have been associated with mortality events that can last years and deplete populations. In most years, however, Ichthyophonus infections are relatively mild and are hypothesized to be only a minor source of mortality. Beginning in 2012, observations of severe Ichthyophonus infections in herring in Sitka Sound suggest that a shift from chronic low-mortality infections to acute high-mortality infections may have occurred. In contrast, infected herring in Prince William Sound continue to have mild infections. Declining herring populations in both locations are a cause for concern.
Maya Groner and Paul Hershberger (USGS) are estimating disease mortality, prevalence and intensity of Ichthyophonus infections using historical samples of herring collected since 2009 in both Sitka Sound and Prince William Sound. They will quantify infection intensity in heart tissue in order to understand how infections are distributed across herring of different age and year classes. The exact intensity or amount of infection that causes mortality is unknown. Researchers are experimenting with different infection intensities to illuminate what intensity causes mortality. These data will inform a population model which will allow researchers to estimate how much of an effect this disease is having on both populations during outbreak and non-outbreak years.
Understanding how diseases affect wild marine populations is very challenging. This work will provide managers with tools to improve management of herring populations. By identifying signs associated with acute, lethal infections, the researchers will be able to develop an early warning system for this disease.