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Release of live baitfish by recreational anglers drives fish pathogen introduction risk

Emerging diseases of wildlife are an existential threat to biodiversity, and human-mediated movements of live animals are a primary vector of their spread. Wildlife disease risk analyses offer an appealing alternative to precautionary approaches because they allow for explicit quantification of uncertainties and consideration of tradeoffs. Such considerations become particularly important in high-frequency invasion pathways with hundreds of thousands of individual vectors, where even low pathogen prevalence can lead to substantial risk. The purpose of this study was to examine the landscape-level dynamics of human behavior-mediated pathogen introduction risk in the context of a high-frequency invasion pathway. One such pathway is the use and release of live fish used as bait by recreational anglers. We used a stochastic risk assessment model parameterized by angler survey data from Minnesota, USA, to simulate one year of fishing in Minnesota and estimate the total number of risky trips for each of three pathogens: viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus, the microsporidian parasite Ovipleistophora ovariae, and the Asian fish tapeworm Schizocotyle acheilognathi. We assessed the number of introductions under four scenarios: current/baseline conditions, outbreak conditions (increased pathogen prevalence), source-focused control measures (decreased pathogen prevalence), and angler-focused control measures (decreased rates of release). We found that hundreds of thousands of introduction events can occur per year, even for regulated pathogens at low pathogen prevalence. Reducing the rate of illegal baitfish release had significant impact on risky trips in scenarios where a high number of anglers were involved, but was less impactful in circumstances with limited outbreaks and fewer affected anglers. In contrast, reducing pathogen prevalence in the source populations of baitfish had relatively little impact. In order to make meaningful changes in pathogen introduction risk, managers should focus efforts on containing local outbreaks and reducing illegal baitfish release to reduce pathogen introduction risk. Our study also demonstrates the risk associated with high-frequency invasion pathways and the importance of incorporating human behaviors into wildlife disease models and risk assessments.
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