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How To Help Prevent Whirling Disease From Spreading

Cases of whirling disease, which is caused by a parasite and can fatally affect salmonid fish like trout, have been recently confirmed in Jones Hole Creek in Northeastern Utah. 

The disease attacks cartilage in host fish leading to misshapen, sloping heads and spinal deformities. The parasite affects the host neurologically as well. There is no treatment for whirling disease, and can be fatal for fish, especially when young fish contract the parasite. Trina Hedrick, the Northeastern Region Aquatics Manager for the Division of Wildlife Resources, explained how whirling disease got its name. 

“Where the parasite attacks the cartilage you’ll start seeing some funkiness, but it also affects them neurologically so you might start seeing them swimming in a circle, which is where they get the whirling disease name,” Hedrick said.

The cases of whirling disease in Jones Hole Creek are especially concerning because of the creek’s proximity to the Jones Hole National Fish Hatchery. The DWR and Fish and Wildlife Service have taken precautionary measures to ensure the disease does not spread into the hatchery, including closing stream adjacent canals that lead to the hatchery, and putting up more signs to keep anglers aware.

But she said it is important for anyone fishing in these areas to ensure they aren’t spreading the parasite. It is crucial that anglers clean all equipment after leaving any water body they fish at, to not spread the spores. Hedrick recommended ensuring everything is dried off and cleaned, especially waders and wading shoes

“There are more nooks and crannies for the parasites to get into,” Hedrick said. “Especially with the felt soled wader boots. The spores can really get stuck up in there. No division employee would ever wear them on a work survey or even for personal use. You can get boots with little metal studs drilled into the boot for traction in the creek. Get flat debris, mud, and everything visible off that boot, soaking it in a solution that’ll kill the parasite.” 

It’s also important for anglers to never take a dead fish from one water and put it into another water body. A dead fish releases the spores for the parasite, restarting the life cycle again. 

Whirling disease has been documented in other areas in Utah, but usually mostly in brown trout. In the Jones Hole Creek, it has been documented in rainbow trout, which are more susceptible to the disease. Cutthroat trout are also present in the area, and highly susceptible to the disease as well, which has managers concerned.