DNR Officials Continue to Study Fatal Fish Disease


Columnaris Disease. It’s an illness affecting aquatic life in West Virginia. While it can be fatal, Division of Natural Resources officials are trying to stop it from spreading to more waters in the state.

Columnaris disease affects fish, creating lesions in them. It’s caused by stress. It acts like a rash, causing an itchy sensation on the fish, and if untreated, the fish can quickly die from the illness. The disease came to West Virginia a few years ago, causing a fish kill in Stonewall Jackson Lake in 2010. It’s since spread to different bodies of water, and DNR officials are working to make sure it doesn’t get worse. Chris O’ Bara is a fisheries biologist with the DNR.

“This time of year, we have columnaris outbreaks because water temperatures are rising. Fish gets stressed as water temperatures rise,” O’ Bara said.

The big reason why the disease spreads is because the illness acts like any kind of contagious disease. Fish can easily spread it from one to another if one rubs against a fish with the disease. Last year, the DNR saw more outbreaks.

“Stress and bacteria, when they get together, we have a disease issue,” he said.

O’Bara says columnaris disease could be an even greater threat to the state’s waters,  in years to come. He says this is primarily due to warmer temperatures in the summer months.

As water temperature changes or increases, in climate change, we are going to see new pathogens invading these areas and the old ones kind of not being there anymore. Some of the pathogens linked to cold water, we probably won’t see as many of those anymore, and some of the new pathogens moving in, we will see will be due to warmer water,” O’ Bara said.

But there’s good news. O’Bara says states throughout the Northeastern part of the country are placing more resources on how to treat this disease and other diseases. And he says that due to technological developments, it’s getting easier and easier for the DNR to attack this issue head-on.

It’s a lot easier to test things,” he said.

But what about fish that already have the disease? What should a person do if they think the fish they are eating may have it?

O’ Bara says there isn’t a link between a fish with columnaris disease affecting a person’s health. He says if people suspect the fish may have the disease, it’s up to them to decide whether to eat it.

The DNR recommends for people who transport fish, to be wary of keeping possibly affected fish with others.