Application of the weight-of-evidence approach to assess the decline of brown trout (Salmo trutta) in Swiss rivers
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weight-of-evidence approach; brown trout; health; abundance; water quality; proliferative kidney disease
To assess potential causes for the decline in catch of brown trout and their impaired health status in Switzerland, a 5-year multidisciplinary research project was conducted. Multiple causal hypotheses were postulated and investigated in a variety of laboratory and field studies. We present here the application of a weight-of-evidence analysis to evaluate the results of these studies and to assess the causes for decline in brown trout abundance. Based on human health epidemiological criteria, the method considers the exposure situation, the correlation between causes and effects, specificity of effects, and amelioration due to removal. For our evaluation, we concentrated on four test rivers and included data on fish health and population density, water quality, and habitat parameters. Our results showed that proliferative kidney disease (PKD) caused by a parasite and clinical outbreak supported by other factors is a very probable single parameter for the decline of brown trout abundance at the sites of the test rivers where it occurs. Elevated levels of nitrogen compounds may also be posing a serious risk at several sites, in particular those downstream of sewage treatment plants. Several habitat parameters, such as large width, low percentage of riffles or elevated winter temperatures, were identified as factors likely contributing to impaired health, recruitment, and abundance at single sites. At most sites, more than one factor must be acting jointly to cause the observed decline in brown trout abundance.