(WJHL) – Researchers are enlisting the public in a brand-new “biosurveillance network” to determine just how far a new group of viruses has traveled in fish populations.
Blotchy Bass Syndrome is the common name of a new form of illness that’s been cropping up all across North America, wildlife officials say. According to officials with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the spread of an “adomavirus” has been associated with the appearance of “hyperpigmented melanistic skin lesions” on smallmouth bass in some areas.
Translation: finding a fish with dark, black splotches on its body could be a sign that the virus has spread.
USGS research biologist Dr. Luke Iwanowicz told News Channel 11 the first documented case of the Blotchy Bass Syndrome appeared in the 1980s in a largemouth bass, but sparse data made tracking the disease’s spread difficult. Each state tracked the disease with its own program, but the USGS is hoping to tie it all together.
“Often wildlife disease research is reactive,” said Clay Raines, a biological science technician with USGS. “For example, responding when you observe a die-off of fish. In this case, we can collect baseline information in real-time, with the goal of being able to use these data to build predictive models and potentially forecast where and when we might see blotchy bass next.”
Monitoring of social media and angler blogs was one of USGS’s early tools, which cued researchers into the power of public participation. Now, citizen scientists are encouraged to report every bass they catch to help understand the disease.
The Blotchy Bass Bonanza is an event partnered with the USGS and designed to get anglers to submit as much data as they can while research continues. Prizes sponsored by West Virginia University and the American Fishing Tackle Company mean that anyone who participates stands a chance to win gift cards and other rewards after submitting images of several species of bass that they catch:
When you catch a bass, you can use the Angler’s Atlas MyCatch app to take a photo and prove the fish’s spots (or lack thereof) and size. Photos have to be taken on-site in the app, and can’t be uploaded later.
Location data provided to MyCatch helps researchers identify the watershed that the fish was living in, but the exact location of the catch is kept private. A big part of the policy of Angler’s Atlas is secrecy since fishing fans can be very protective of their favorite spots.
The project is one of the first of its kind and drew significant inspiration from the Great Backyard Bird Count, put on by Audubon and other partners.
“I think in a lot of ways, we are learning as we go,” Cynthia Fox, a fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said. “Learning what works and what doesn’t. More importantly, I think it will improve the trust and communication between management biologists and the resource consumers/users. I was already communicating a lot with anglers in my area, but this effort has put me in touch with thousands of more anglers and biologists. We are learning new ways to get so much more data than we could have ever collected ourselves, and I’m excited that we can take advantage of that opportunity.”
Another important arm of the project is forging new bonds with wildlife officials throughout the country. From focused projects like the Eastern Ecological Science Center’s Chesapeake Bay surveys to the country-spanning scale of the bonanza, local experts have shed light on cases throughout the years. According to Matthew Cameron with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, the state will be collecting its own data on blotchiness in bass during its spring electrofishing sampling.
No links to blotchiness and death in bass have been published yet, but Iwanowicz said the data provides a good baseline that lets researchers compare in the future. Without a unified program to collect the data, it’s hard to tell exactly how common blotches are and whether a fish’s environment has any impact.