Problematic sea lice infestations on farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) have motivated extensive research and development into new methods to prevent, monitor and control sea lice. Most of these technologies require detailed information on the behaviour, spatial distribution and demography of lice on host fish. This study investigated how salmon lice (Lepeophtheirus salmonis) infestation density varies across the host's surface under sea cage farming conditions. Lice abundance, demography and attachment location were tracked over time, with repeated sampling of 300 individually tagged salmon across three replicate experimental sea cages. The data reveal clear differences in attachment locations according to sex and stage, but with an overall preference for the dorsal surface among mobile stages-dorsal head for adult females and dorsal-posterior section for males and pre-adults. Total lice abundance was highly variable between repeated measures of individual fish, consistent with frequent host-switching or mortality. Total lice numbers also declined between sampling dates, likely due to handling, with lost mobile lice being almost exclusively adult males. As the distribution of sea lice on hosts is likely determined by numerous factors, future image-based automated detection systems should be validated in settings that reflect the complex host-parasite interactions that occur in open farming systems.
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