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Bernie Keefe
"bernie" - Guest Blogger

Gill Lice

Guest Blog by: Bernie Keefe , CO 1/7/2019
Have you heard the stories about how fishing was so good in the 80’s? 

We could go and catch 20 fish limits of salmon by noon almost any day of the year. Lake trout fishing was just being discovered and the lake trout anglers had a lot to learn. Let’s “flash” forward to 2018 and think about salmon fishing. It’s incredible at Blue Mesa and Wolford but what happened to Green Mountain, Eleven Mile, Williams Fork and others?

Gill Lice have destroyed some of Colorado’s best salmon fisheries. 

Green Mountain once a prominent salmon fishery has been destroyed. The biologist at Green Mountain is trying an experiment; don’t stock any salmon for 4 years. Let the hosts die off and maybe they will take the lice with them. He is also not stocking rainbows, trying everything possible to get rid of any hosts. 

Williams Fork reservoir used to produce 1-2 million eggs, (in 2007 a record year of 4 million eggs) this year produced about only 150,000 eggs. The DOW will halt egg operations at Williams Fork after this year. The lack of salmon in the run is the reason why.

Eleven Mile reservoir used to be an incredible salmon fishery for limits of salmon pushing 20”. There are still a few in there but it will never be the fishery it was.

Blue Mesa the states largest salmon producer. It has produced runs of 17 million eggs. During the drought of 2012-13 they suffered from a large algae bloom which reduced the egg take to 3 million eggs. In 2016 they cut the daily salmon limit in ½. That year they had 17 million eggs. In 2016 Gill lice were found in 9% of the salmon with an average of 1/salmon. In 2017 the 68% of the salmon in the run had gill lice with an average of 2/fish. The run produced 16.7 million eggs. In 2018 87% of the salmon had gill lice with an average of 9/fish. 

Wolford reservoir is a “clean” lake for now in 2018 it produced 2.957 million eggs. Wolford is critical for Colorado’s egg take. If Blue Mesa fails the state will rely on Wolford to supply all the brood lakes. This will mean a lot of the other “salmon” lakes will be shorted or not stocked at all.

There are more lakes affected by this, to keep interest in reading this I chose to only include the data above.

Everything I learned about gill lice makes me believe it is being spread around by private hatcheries. A land owner with a private pond calls a hatchery. The hatchery dumps the contaminated trout in the pond. The outlet of the pond flows down to a reservoir, carrying the lice in the currents. Lice then attaches to a fish and proceeds to spread. 

There is a board called “Fish Health Board” Here are their email addresses.

Here is an email for the CPW wildlife commission.

Elizabeth Brown heads the ANS program in Colorado.

The Fish Health Board consists of 5 members 1 CPW employee, 1 dept of agriculture employee, 2 private aquaculture people and a US Fish and Wildlife person. They decide what “bugs” are legal or illegal. For instance, whirling disease is illegal.  They won’t make gill lice illegal. WHY NOT!! LOOK WHATS HAPPENING STATEWIDE!

Why are the private aquaculture guys outnumbering the state CPW employees? This system makes no sense to me. Why do the private guys outnumber the CPW guys and make the rules they have to follow? 

Here is the way I see it. We are letting a couple guys that run hatcheries make a very good living dumping gill lice in our waters, which in turn is ruining our fisheries. 

If you’re not a fan of fishing for salmon, think about this. In ALL the great lake trout fisheries across the west there is one common denominator.  KOKANEE SALMON!!! Every time a state record lake trout has been caught since the 90’s in Colorado the lake that produced that fish had ample supplies of kokanee. Flaming Gorge which might be the best lake trout fishery in the west has lots of….. Kokanee Salmon! The only exception to that rule is Flat Head Lake Montana, it has Lake Whitefish instead of salmon. 

There is another factor in all of this. Drought cannot be controlled, it stratifies the lake and lumps all the salmon into a very tight band of the water column. Which in no time will help spread these nasty little critters. Drought can cause algae blooms and numerous other problems. 

I encourage everyone reading this to write the Fish Health Board, Elizabeth Brown and the wildlife commission (their contact info is above) and demand they make gill lice illegal. Then share this with your friends. We should be able to raise awareness of this problem and get it fixed before we lose more opportunities. 

Bernie Keefe guides for lake trout, kokanee, rainbow trout and brown trout in the Lake Granby Area and is an expert in both fishing and teaching techniques for catching big lake trout in regional waters. Bernie is sponsored by Colorado Boat Center, Crestliner Boats, Mercury Motors, The Ice Team, Eagle Claw, Berkley Fishing,Minn Kota Motors, Lowrance Electronics, Habervision eyewear, Strikemaster, Lindy fishing tackle, Rapala, A&A Toppers.
Blog content © Bernie Keefe
Blog Comments
redleader, 1/7/2019 8:11:43 AM
Wow a Bernie blog, good job brother. I had Gill lice at my ponds pretty bad a few years after the first time I stocked them. I called Jeremy at Lily thinking they had stocked infected fish. He told me that Gill lice are natural in the environment and fish are susceptible when they get stressed out. He said you can go up to 10,000' in Rocky mtn park and find Gill lice. I know Jon Ewert said he suspected private hatcheries as the culprit. Whatever has caused it it's a scourge on our fisheries, I remember well the great Kokanee fishing we had and back then the Hatcheries weren't as clean. At Williams fork I hope if they quit taking eggs that they open the river back up. We campaigned and worked hard to get WF an egg taking area at a time of great need but in some ways it backfired on us. The river access at the inlet and the fishing gets closed down in the fall to the buoy lines and as we know when closures happen it's hard to get them back. Screening off the river has stopped all the natural reproduction from Browns and Kokanee that used make the runs to spawn. The Kokanee fishing in the old days was so good with so many fewer stocked I believe the natural reproduction was a great factor that produced healthier fish.
redleader, 1/7/2019 9:06:06 AM
Kokanee are the weak link of a Great Lake Trout fishery, they are just too fragile and unpredictable. Pretty much every Lake Trout fishery across the west relying on stocked Kokanee as it's food source has had problems eventually with the exception of Flaming gorge but the Kokanee there are spawning naturally. In a stocked lake with Lake Trout the Lake trout will lose out and the managers always prefer and are bias towards their stocked product with management just look what happened to Blue Mesa's great lake trout fishery and where the majority of those great fish ended up. Kokanee are not a natural food source for Lake trout, you don't find them in the Great Lake trout fisheries of northern Canada. A natural food source for Lake trout are Lake Whitefish they are in the Great Lakes and Flathead in Montana and would be a great addition to Granby's fishery as the lake doesn't have the proper nutrients for Kokanee to thrive and Whitefish would feed on the Mysis shrimp. Why are our managers and researchers so Closed minded about this? They know Kokanee are a weak link dependent on hatcheries, very susceptible to environmental factors and diseases. I remember to well in early 2000's when the dow started their vicious war on lake trout to save the Kokanee that ended up wasting to gill lice. Could it be the ultimate Karma for what they did at Blue Mesa.
blackdog1, 1/7/2019 9:49:37 AM
good read Bernie, I spoke to Biologist this past summer about the gill lice. I was surprised at that time of the high % of kokes that had gill lice. He thought the number of lice per fish was low enough to not be killing them, Yet! but from your research it sure looks like it is on a death climb for the kokes. Sure hope it doesn't end up like 11 mile, I'm old enough to remember the good old days on 11 mile.
skiman, 1/7/2019 2:41:24 PM
It’s not just the Kokes that are suffering, just look at the trout population in Clear Creek Reservoir. They are infested with lice, yet CPW still keeps stocking them. In my opinion, there are other factors that come into play including water management and over-fishing, just to name two. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I don’t see things changing much in the near future.
Marcus Camby, 1/7/2019 3:47:21 PM
Its good you took the time to write an article about a subject not a lot of people know about. I do want to point out that your statement that private hatcheries are not regulated in the same manner as state hatcheries is not factual. They are regulated the same and must pass the exact same health testing to be able to stock anywhere in the state. What specifically made you believe that gill lice is being spread by private hatcheries? especially considering all of the cases of Gill Lice you mentioned are public waters stocked exclusively by CPW and FWS! This article is confusing, are you talking about public or private waters? You talk about the issues with Kokanee, but blame private hatcheries who have never stocked a lake that contain kokanee. Do you know of a specific case of connectivity if that is the case you're making? Gill lice are quite ubiquitous in the environment and the egg bearing females (the only ones people can see with a naked eye) only tend to show up when more stressors are present such as drought, high temperature, and crowded conditions as you alluded to. Frankly if you are going to point the finger at hardworking private hatcheries that are in full compliance with all health testing and regulations as the culprit for this issue, you should at least have a shred of data (or at a bare minimum some anecdotal evidence) to back that claim up. Your accusation that private hatcheries are ""ruining our fisheries" is baseless and has no more merit than any other conspiracy theory. It is unfair to portray the private folks as greedy people who don't care about water resources, and you clearly don't know them. And let's be real, "very good living" is another stretch of the truth. It was also irresponsible for Winter Park Times to publish this without OPINION in front of it.
blackdog1, 1/7/2019 5:12:51 PM
Marcus I'm no expert but in know the Blue Mesa infestation was blamed on private waters on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. That is what the CPW is saying was the source of gill lice getting into the Blue Mesa, I have not seen any evidence that proves that either. But that's the story over here. Funny though I have been told by CPW people the same thing Bernie is saying, that private hatchery's/stockers have different standards/tests than the state /federal hatchery's? Marcus , are your fish tested for gill lice? are your ponds tested for gill lice? just wondering?.
Bernie Keefe (bernie), 1/7/2019 5:27:24 PM
Marcus, The main goal of this blog is to bring attention to gill lice and the fact that it is legal for anyone to transport them. Our cold water lakes are being threatened by an Aquatic Nuisance Species. (ANS) As you probably know there are 2 species of gill lice here in the state. One from Colorado and the other from the pacific northwest. The one from the pacific northwest is causing the devastation and should be banned from being transported. The other thing that should happen is the FDA approval of tools like "slice" (a chemical that controls gill lice). This could help the fish health board ban the transportation of these nasty little creatures.
Marcus Camby, 1/8/2019 9:14:27 AM
Thank you for your response but you still did not address any of my questions or provide any support for your claims that private hatcheries are responsible for "ruining our fisheries". Your article places the blame for complex issues with public resources solely on private hatcheries that have nothing to do with the management of those water bodies. It is a serious accusation and if you are going to broadcast that opinion you should have at least one reason for your belief. You are attacking people's livelihood, What if someone wrote an article "Fishing guides kill trophy Lake Trout. Ruining fisheries to make a very good living" based on nothing but hearsay. The fact is gill lice is an unregulated parasite in the state of Colorado and state hatcheries could move them around legally just as much as a private hatchery could. The facilities are at equal risk and the state could have introduced them into a system just the same. Your point is valid that it should be potentially regulated, and that would apply to public and private hatcheries alike. Your article implies that they are regulated for the state and not for private. To Blackdogs point, if the state biologists are blaming private hatcheries for instances like Blue Mesa-Lake fork, they should also have sound evidence. The sad part at this point is, it is not a regulated parasite and even if there was a clear case of a public or private entity introducing these into a water body there is no consequence. It seems this is the true point of the article, and I do appreciate it, I just take issue with blaming when there is no sound reasoning behind it.
Marcus Camby, 1/8/2019 9:27:24 AM
Sorry to answer you black dog the state and private hatcheries do in fact test for the same pathogens and parasites. I do not have any ponds, fish, or a hatchery but if I did they would not be required to be tested for Gill Lice just as the state hatcheries are not required to test for it. It is really a BMP to monitor for it and try to get rid of infestations, no one wants to be stocking out gill lice, public or private.
Robndenver, 1/8/2019 11:07:50 AM
Hey Bernie, Great explanation of this problem. Here is what I sent the Fish Health Board and my local representative: Anyone who wants to use it in whole, or in part is welcome to do that. "Folks, Last August, when I brought my new (used) boat into Colorado, the first stop I made was 6060 Broadway to have it inspected and cleared. Three really sharp biologists gave it a going over and taught me what to look for and how to protect our waters from invasive pests that will damage our fisheries. I don’t understand how gill lice are not included in the definition of an Aquatic Nuisance. The damage that they are doing to our lakes and streams is devastating, and yet they are not considered illegal? What the heck is going on? I just registered my boat, and paid an extra $25 to fund the ANS programs, I will soon have to pay another $8 for a fishing license, more for an extra rod stamp and a dramatic increase for my car tag to enter State Parks and Recreational Areas. I would have thought with these increases I would see an improvement in Colorado’s stewardship, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. What I’ve seen recently from CPW is performance that included the computer meltdown during the last big game licensing period, the fading license inks, the deterioration of elk populations in the San Juan mountains and now this example of turning a blind eye toward destructive pests. I like to see Gill Lice listed as illegal species and an aquatic nuisance. I’d like to see oversight on private hatcheries and impoundments, that prevent the introduction of these pests into our public waters and I’d like to see a publicized program to eradicate this threat to Colorado’s native Salmonidae family of fish."
redleader, 1/8/2019 12:14:46 PM
Rob, looks good except take out" Native Salmonidae" as that would be exclusively cutthroat trout.
Marcus Camby, 1/8/2019 12:17:11 PM
Rob there is ample oversight on private hatcheries. They are held to the same standard as CPW hatcheries . This misinformation that was caused here by Mr. Keefe's article is exactly why I am speaking out. Private hatcheries simply aren't running around spreading parasites completely unregulated by the state, Make the argument solely about making gill lice a regulated pathogen in the state if that is the goal.
COAvs52, 1/8/2019 2:23:42 PM
Marcus, I can tell by your responses and blinders that you wear towards the issue at hand, which is gill lice is an ANS, that you must own or derive income from a private fish hatchery. Since you are so knowledgeable, why don't you educate us as to how this testing process goes and how you are inspected for gill lice which the state doesn't even recognize as an ANS species that are illegal to transport?? which because they don't, I would be surprised to see that a private entity would spend the money to test water, fish and self regulate for the issue at hand. The common factor in the kokanee lakes with devastating gill lice problems, is the significant amount of private fisheries within their feeding tributaries, which these private "ponds and fishing clubs" being stocked by private hatcheries, who source their from???. Since you want scientific proof how about you tell us how else would a non native species of gill lice gets into our waters if its not from private hatcheries? You would think that since our state biologists feel this is the case, that its a pretty solid bet its true as I'm sure their opinions are not unsupported. From what I can tell connecting the dots is pretty easy where the lice came from, and that private hatcheries have too much of a voice on their regulating agency having 2 of the 5 seats, Its no wonder there are no regulations on this because it would cost the privates money that they don't want to spend to meet the regulation. The government run hatcheries are a Gov't agency which typically have no problem spending money as seen all over the government, which makes it more likely that they actually do the testing. In the end, the world is all about money and private fish hatcheries trying to make a buck are no different. Hopefully this brings some light on the gill lice problems and gets them listed as ANS so that its illegal to spread them around as it should be!
Marcus Camby, 1/8/2019 4:35:20 PM
Yet another response with absolutely no evidence, no examples, no research or not even one anecdotal case study, just wild assumptions and accusations. Only point I am making. I have nothing to do with a private hatchery , just tried of another subject in fisheries where people get whipped into a frenzy and started broadcasting their ill conceived outrage when they really have no science or general knowledge to back it up. They could be coming from a variety or sources, fish usually won't show infestation until they are stressed in other ways such as high temperature and crowded conditions, they could very well be quite ubiquitous throughout the waters of the state but are only causing problems in certain areas, certain conditions, and certain times (i.e when kokanee are stressed from spawning and crowding together) The state doesn't test for or control gill lice in their own hatcheries so take that where you will. They also could also certainly be coming from private hatcheries. I DON"T KNOW, therefore I wouldn't write an article harshly accusing one possible cause. I also have never said they shouldn't be regulated for, just that one party can't be solely blamed without any evidence. But hey Connect all the dots you want bud and you can paint your pre-conceived picture quite easily. There is no known native species of Gill lice to Colorado, there is only the one (S. californiensis) non native species ever found here which is native to the pacific northwest and was likely introduced in the 1800's along with rainbows. If a private fish grower has gill lice, it is absolutely in their best interest to treat for it and provide the best product they can and most would definitely put the time and money into it.
redleader, 1/8/2019 10:50:06 PM
Thanks for all the comments and information Marcus, you obviously are very knowledgable about the subject. Too many unanswered questions so far. At my ponds I stocked too many Rainbows creating crowding which very well could of caused the Gill lice problems but they recovered the next year as Rainbows (in lieu of Kokanee) seem to be able to do. Williams Fork was down to dead pool in 2004, we had a few good Kokanee years after that from the flooded vegetation it created but the fish were infected and has gone downhill since. A fairly similar situation at Blue Mesa with a drought, Algae bloom, die off of Kokanee (the remaining being severely stressed) and a big increase in Gill lice infestations since.
droolr, 1/9/2019 7:47:54 PM
The Dow should stock lake white fish and artic char in lakes with mysis shrimp . the shrimp starve the kokes by eating their food and unhealthy fish are prone to diseases . lake white fish and char will feed heavily on mysis helping the salmon and providing food for lake trout .
Oyey, 1/10/2019 9:32:16 AM
I gotta say, Marcus makes completely valid points. It's unfortunate that the message of making gill lice an aquatic nuisance was diluted by pinning the issue on private hatcheries. There is rumor and there is a belief, but from what I have read/heard, there are no facts that directly link the issue to private hatcheries any more than state hatcheries. Further, there is a lot of data out there that plants the issue squarely on conditions like crowding and drought repercussions. I am all for writing the Fish Health Board, but let's not start damning private hatcheries without supporting evidence. I'm not sure if there is something not written that motivated Bernie to lay blame where he did, nor am I sure if there is motivation on Marcus' part to defend private hatcheries, but either way, without support, we should not be risking private party's livelihood for the sake of solving the gill lice issue... That is unless it's proven.
brookieflyfisher, 1/10/2019 10:52:23 AM
Gill lice are a native parasite. They are found across the West and have been affecting trout and salmon since before Euro-American settlement. The proper question here is "what has changed over the past three decades to cause the rise of destructive gill lice infestations?" It's not stocking...that's been happening for nearly 100 years. The obvious answer is declining water quantity and water quality brought about by multi-year drought and human development. Oil and gas development, urban development, and climate change are stressors on sensitive fish species like trout and salmon that allow a usually benign parasite to take lethal effect. Relaxation of environmental regulation, accelerating climate change, and a lack of funding to combat negative environmental impact is the real culprit here...not private hatcheries.
Marcus Camby, 1/10/2019 12:05:00 PM
Brookie to your point, my only comment would be that the gill lice don't necessarily have a lethal effect. They certainly cause some tissue damage and affect an individuals overall fitness, but fish showing heavy infestations can still survive just fine. As you and I mentioned, heavily infestations are usually observed in the presence of a multitude of other stressors, and it is likely this combination of stress (low dissolved oxygen, high temperature, gill tissue damage) that is affecting moralities on the population scale.
SirGreg88, 1/10/2019 1:38:00 PM
News flash. The climate is ALWAYS changing and ALWAYS has. Matter of fact--much more so before the industrial revolution. Drought and other stressors are definitely contributors much the same as the pine beetle/fire situation. The pine beetle situation is exacerbated by mans suppression of natural fires. Worth noting that our area has historically been way drier than it has been since the massive population increase. Plagues of all types seem to happen when there is an overpopulation in a given area. My 2 cents homies.
brookieflyfisher, 1/10/2019 1:46:27 PM
Yes Marcus, you are correct. A worthy point of contention here is the "chicken-vs-egg" problem. Does gill lice cause additional stress due to environmental issues? Or does stress from environmental issues cause gill lice infestations? The first suggests taking care of *both* the lice (perhaps through beefier regulation on hatcheries) *and* environmental issues will be necessary to stop infestations. The latter suggests focusing on environmental issues and allow the gill lice to take care of themselves. Its an area that needs study from Universities, the CPW, and US Dept of the Interior.