Groups of mature (5+ year old) Arctic charr Salvelinus alpinus held in sea water were exposed for 34 days to either a high (mean ±s.e. 0·15 ± 0·01 sea lice Lepeophtheirus salmonis g−1 fish mass) (HI), medium (0·07 ± 0·00 sea lice g−1 fish mass) (MI) or no [control (C)] sea-lice infection during early stages of gonad development (June to July). Infection with sea lice resulted in increased plasma cortisol concentrations and this was related to intensity of infection; females tended to have higher cortisol concentrations than males at high infection intensities (HI group: female c. 130 ng ml−1; male c. 80 ng ml−1). Plasma osmolality (C c. 330, MI c. 350 and HI c. 415 mOsm) and chloride concentrations (C c. 135, MI c. 155 and HI c. 190 mM) increased significantly with infection intensity, indicating osmoregulatory problems in infected fish. A strong positive relationship between plasma osmolality and cortisol concentration was recorded. Plasma sex-steroid concentrations were influenced negatively by sea-lice infection, particularly in the HI group, and were inversely related to plasma cortisol concentrations. The most heavily infected fish postponed the initiation of reproductive development until exposed to fresh water and timing of ovulation tended to be delayed in these fish. Growth rate and condition were negatively influenced by sea-lice infection and growth rate was inversely related to plasma cortisol concentrations. Sea-lice infection resulted in mortality among females in the HI group, and the proportion of maturing females was lower in the MI group (46%) than in the controls (85%). Egg production in the MI and HI groups was c. 50 and 30% of the C group. Egg size, embryonic survival and fry mass did not differ across groups. Sea lice influence reproductive development and egg production in S. alpinus, and consequently these parasites may influence populations via sublethal effects on broodfish, affecting growth and condition, and their reproductive output.
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