Environment may be the source ofFlavobacterium columnareoutbreaks at fish farms
, causing columnaris disease, was isolated for the first time from free water and biofilms in the environment outside fish farms. Fourteen isolates were found from Central Finland from a river by a water intake of a salmonid farm and 400 m upstream of the farm. One isolate was from a lake not under the influence of any fish farming. The bacterium could not be isolated from five other lakes in Central Finland or from three lakes in Eastern Finland, none of them in use for fish farming. Among the environmental isolates there was both genetic variability and difference in virulence, but the isolates were less virulent than the isolates originating from a disease outbreak at a fish farm. The isolates were able to survive for months outside the fish host and also to change their colony morphology, a phenomenon probably used as a survival strategy forF. columnare. This indicates that waters upstream of fish farms are a potential source of columnaris outbreaks at the farms during the summer. The results support the hypothesis that fish farms and farming practices may select for the virulent strains ofF. columnareoccurring in environmental waters to cause the infections at the farms.