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Mercury Found in Trout in Grand Canyon and other Western Parks

April 25
15:39 2014

A recently published study by the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service reports small levels of mercury have been found in rainbow trout and brown trout in three creeks in the Grand Canyon. Bright Angel Creek, Havasu Creek and Shinumo Creek are where the mercury-containing fish were found. Mercury was also found in fish at 20 other parks included in the study.

fishing bright angel creekThe four-year, federal study is the first of its kind to incorporate information from remote places at 21 national parks in 10 western states, including Alaska. Western parks were selected to find out the role atmospheric mercury plays when deposited in remote places.

Although fish mercury concentrations were elevated in some sites, the majority of fish across the region had concentrations that were below most benchmarks associated with impaired health of fish, wildlife, and humans. However, the range of concentrations measured suggest that complex processes are involved in driving mercury accumulation in these environments and further research is needed to better understand these processes, and assess risk.”– USGS ecologist Collin Eagles-Smith, the report’s lead author

Mercury Health Hazards

Mercury is harmful to human and wildlife health. It is among the most widespread contaminants in the world. It comes from natural sources, such as volcanic eruptions, and from man-made sources, such as burning fossil fuels in power plants and mining activity. During the past 150 years, humans have increased levels of atmospheric mercury at least three fold.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to high levels of mercury in humans may cause damage to the brain, kidneys, and the developing fetus. Pregnant women and young children are particularly sensitive to the effects of mercury.

Mercury also impacts wildlife. High mercury concentrations in birds, mammals, and fish can result in reduced foraging efficiency, survival, and reproductive success.

Mercury threatens natural resources, including wildlife, which the NPS is mandated to protect.

This is a wake-up call. We need to see fewer contaminants in park ecosystems, especially contaminants like mercury where concentrations in fish challenge the very mission of the national parks to leave wild life unimpaired for future generations.”–NPS ecologist Colleen Flanagan Pritz, co-author of the report

How the Study Was Conducted

Between 2008 and 2012, NPS collected more than 1,400 fish from 86 lakes and rivers. USGS scientists measured mercury concentrations in fish muscle tissue. Sixteen fish species were sampled. The focus was on commonly consumed sport fish. Smaller prey fish consumed by birds and wildlife were also sampled.

Scientists compared fish mercury concentrations among sites within an individual park, as well as from one park to other parks.They identified areas with elevated mercury levels. They also compared the mercury concentrations in the fish to a range of health benchmarks.

The authors found that mercury levels varied greatly, from park to park and among sites within each park. In most parks, mercury concentrations in fish were moderate to low in comparison with similar fish species from other locations in the Western states. Mercury concentrations were below EPA’s fish tissue criterion for safe human consumption in 96 percent of the sport fish sampled.

Funding for this study was provided by the NPS Air Resources Division, USGS Contaminants Biology Program within the Environmental Health Mission Area, the Ecosystems Mission Area to the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, and with in-kind contributions from participating parks.

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