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2000 conference paper--
A National Pilot Study of Mercury Contamination of Aquatic Ecosystems along Multiple Gradients: Bioaccumulation in Fishes

By William G. Brumbaugh, David P. Krabbenhoft, Dennis R. Helsel, and James G. Wiener

Presented at the 21st annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), Nashville, TN, November 12-16, 2000


A national pilot study to examine relations of mercury (Hg) and methylmercury (MeHg) in aquatic ecosystems was conducted by sampling water, sediment, and fish in the summer and fall of 1998 at 106 stations from 20 U.S. watershed basins (Fig. 1). Mercury bioaccumulation in fishes was strongly (positively) correlated with the MeHg concentration in water but only moderately with the MeHg in sediment or the total Hg in water. Of the other measured parameters, pH, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), sulfate, sediment loss on ignition (LOI), and the percent wetlands of each basin were also significantly correlated with Hg bioaccumulation in fishes. The best model for predicting Hg bioaccumulation included MeHg in water, pH of the water, % wetlands in the basin, and the acid-volatile sulfide (AVS) content of the sediment. Based on rankings by various Hg criteria, sampling sites from the following five study units had the greatest Hg contamination: Nevada Basin and Range, South Florida Basin, Sacramento River Basin (California), Santee River Basin and Coastal Drainages (South Carolina), and the Long Island and New Jersey Coastal Drainages.

Map showing geometric mean of Hg in fish muscle in 20 basins sampled
Figure 1. The 20 USGS NAWQA basins sampled in this pilot study, categorized by geometric mean of Hg in fish muscle (mg/kg wet wt.)


Methylmercury (MeHg) is a potent neurotoxin that is perhaps the most widespread contaminant affecting our Nation's aquatic ecosystems. Human fish-consumption advisories for Hg in fish now include some 40 states and account for more than eighty percent of all such advisories in the Nation (USEPA, 1996, 1998). In this pilot study, bioaccumulation rates of mercury in fish axial muscle (the dominant repository for methylmercury in fish) for 20 nationwide basins were evaluated in conjunction with measures of total and methylmercury in sediment and water, and selected watershed chemical and physical characteristics. The study was conducted through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program, its Toxic Substances Hydrology program's mercury work, its Wisconsin District Mercury Laboratory (WDML), and its Columbia Environmental Research Center (CERC). The overall objective of this study was to identify ecosystem characteristics that favor the production and bioaccumulation of MeHg on both a regional and national basis.

Study design
Results and discussion

Mercury concentrations for each basin are summarized graphically in Figures 1 and 2. Summary statistics of concentrations (ug/g wet wt.) for all fish samples (n=159) were as follows: arithmetic mean, 0.478; geometric mean, 0.218; median, 0.206; minimum, 0.018; maximum, 5.84. For largemouth bass (n=50) these same statistics were 0.510, 0.329, 0.292, 0.045 and 4.22; for smallmouth bass (n=37) the values were 0.244, 0.195, 0.205, 0.042 and 1.05, respectively. Individual sites where one or more fish samples had Hg concentrations above the 0.5 ug/g wet advisory level are listed in Table 1.

Bar chart
Figure 2. Geometric mean of Hg concentration (ug/g wet wt.) in fish muscle samples collected from each of the 20 basins.
  *NVBR samples collected from only one site (Lahontan Reservoir).

Table 1. Fish samples from this study with Hg conc. > 0.5 ug / g wet wt. ( -- = no data).

Study Unit
Site Location
Sample type
(# of indiv.)
Mean wt. (g)
Mean Hg
NVBR Lahontan Reservoir, NV White Bass Compos. (8) 694 3.36 Yes
SACR Sacramento Sl. nr. Knights Landing, CA Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) 1471 2.17 Nob
SOFL Water Conservation District 3A15, FL Largemouth Bass Compos. (3) 788 2.15 Yes
SANT N. Fork Edisto Fairview Crossrd, SC Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) 907 1.82 Yes
SACR Bear River @ Hwy 70, CA Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) 518 1.21 Nob
SACR Bear River @ Hwy 70, CA Smallmouth Bass Individ. (1) 467 1.10 Nob
LINJ Great Egg Harbor @ Sicklerville, NJ Chain Pickerel Compos. (2) 172 0.91 Yesc
ACAD Bogue Falaya R. @ Covington, LA Largemouth Bass Compos. (8) -- 0.83 Yesd
ACAD Tangipahoa R. @ Robert, LA Largemouth Bass Compos. (8) -- 0.77 Yesd
YELL Shoshone River, @ mouth nr. Kane, WY Walleye Compos. (5) 817 0.70 Yes
YELL Bighorn Lake @ Hwy14A, WY Walleye Compos. (5) 896 0.68 Yese
YELL Bighorn River nr. Kane, WY Walleye Compos. (5) 452 0.66 No
YELL Shoshone River @ mouth nr. Kane, WY Walleye Individ. (1) 1444 0.66 No
SACR Sacramento Sl. nr. Knights Landing, CA Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) 1156 0.65 No
MOBL Satilpa Creek nr. Coffeeville, AL Spotted Bass Compos. (2) 140 0.65 No
LINJ Great Egg Harbor @ Sicklerville, NJ Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) 49 0.65 Yes
SANT N. Fork Edisto River nr. Branchville, SC Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) -- 0.63 Yes
MOBL Satilpa Creek nr. Coffeeville, AL Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) 92 0.62 No
LINJ Great Egg Harbor @ Sicklerville, NJ Chain Pickerel Compos. (5) 84 0.59 Yes
SANT S. Fork Edisto River @ Springfield, SC Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) -- 0.58 Yes
SANT S. Fork Edisto River nr. Canaan, SC Largemouth Bass Individ. (1) -- 0.55 Yes
SOFL Water Conservation District U3 Largemouth Bass Compos. (3) 254 0.55 Yes
SACR Bear River @ Hwy 70, CA Smallmouth Bass Individ. (1) 150 0.54 Nob
MIAM E. Fork L. Miami R. nr Wmsburg, OH Smallmouth Bass Individ. (1) 608 0.51 No

  a Source: USEPA, 1998
  b Advisory by state of California pending (April 1999)
  c Statewide advisory for bass and pickerel in New Jersey
  d Statewide monitoring program for Hg in fish in progress.
  e Advisory in effect for state of Montana but not Wyoming (April 1999)

A summary of the correlation of each measured variable (transformed as necessary to meet linearity requirements) with length-normalized Hg concentrations in fish is given in Table 2. The relative strength for correlation with measures of Hg in water and sediment was:
    MeHg water > MeHg sediment > Hg-Total water >> Hg-Total sediment (not significant).
With the exception of DOC, all variables that were correlated with bioaccumulation exhibited stronger relationships for largemouth bass than for all species combined. The following 4-variable model was deemed most useful (accounting for 45% of the variability) for predicting bioaccumulation rates of Hg in fish for the 20 basins in this nationwide pilot study:
    ln(Hg/length) = - 3.6 + 0.41 ln(MeHg water) + 0.02 (%wetland) - 0.27 pH - 0.12 (AVS1/3)

Table 2. Correlation of measured parameters with Hg bioaccumulation rate.

correlation (R) with ln(Hg fish/length)
all species
largemouth bass
MeHg water natural log 0.623*** 0.712***
MeHg sediment none 0.332*** 0.596***
Hg-Total water natural log 0.277** 0.453**
Hg-Total sediment natural log ns ns
DOC water natural log 0.331*** ns
pH water none -0.371*** -0.496**
sulfate water natural log -0.339*** -0.685***
LOI sediment none 0.250** 0.420**
AVS sediment cube root ns ns
% wetland none 0.413*** 0.523***

*** = p < 0.001; ** = p < 0.01; ns = not significant (p > 0.05)

Geometric means of the five Hg measures when categorized according to the predominant land use for each site are depicted in Fig. 3. All land-use categories were significantly different with respect to Hg fish. The ranking of land use with respect to Hg fish was:
    A/F >> Mine > Ag > Urb.~ Bkd.
The greatest discrepancy between Hg in sediments and in fish was for urban watersheds, which ranked comparatively low for Hg fish but high for Hg-Total and MeHg in sediment. Bioaccumulation factors (BAFs) for the transfer of MeHg from water to fish for each land-use category (and the South Florida basin) are plotted in Fig. 4. For largemouth bass viewed separately, BAFs appeared to be inversely related with the concentration of MeHg in water, suggesting that low concentrations of MeHg in water are more efficiently biotransferred than are high concentrations.

Bar chart
Figure 3. Geometric mean of total or methyl mercury in fish (ug/g wet), water (ng/L), and sediment (ng/g dry) for sites categorized according to predominant land use. Number of observations = 13, 42, 23, 15, and 34, for mixed agriculture/forest (A/F), Mine-impacted (Mine), Agriculture (Ag.), reference/background (Bkg.), and Urban (Urb.), respectively. Excludes South Florida basin.

Bar chart
Figure 4. Geometric mean of MeHg bioconcentration factor (Hg fish / MeHg water) for each land-use category: all species or largemouth bass. Units are L/kg = ng/kg(fish) divided by ng/L(water).


Widespread mercury contamination of our Nation's waterways remains a serious problem. Sources and accumulation rates in fishes vary widely among regions. One or more fish samples from 9 of the 20 basins examined in this pilot study had Hg concentrations above the advisory level of 0.5 ug Hg/g wet wt. Based on rankings of selected water, sediment, and fish criteria, sampling sites from the following five basins exhibited the greatest Hg contamination: Nevada Basin and Range, South Florida, Sacramento Basin (CA), Santee Basin and Coastal Drainages (SC), and the Long Island and New Jersey Coastal Drainages. The concentrations of Hg in fish were strongly correlated with MeHg in water, but only moderately with MeHg in sediment or Hg-Total in water. There was no correlation of Hg in fish with total Hg in sediment.

From a national perspective of flowing waters, the concentration of MeHg in water was by far the most useful variable for predicting the Hg bioaccumulation rate in fish (concentration of Hg in muscle divided by the fish length). However, the percent wetlands (+) , the pH of the water (-) , and the sediment AVS (-) also contributed significantly to a predictive model. Based on ranking criteria, sub-basins categorized as mixed agriculture/forest and mining-impacted exhibited the most consistent contamination of mercury in all three sample matrices (water, sediment, and fish). The greatest discrepancy in rankings of Hg in fish and in sediments was for urban watersheds, where sediments often ranked high but fish usually ranked low. For largemouth bass the bioaccumulation factor or BAF (Hg fish / MeHg water) was lowest for land-use categories having the highest concentrations of MeHg in water, suggesting that low concentrations of MeHg in water are more efficiently biotransferred than high concentrations. Nevertheless, high concentrations of MeHg in water will generally yield high concentrations in fish.


The authors are indebted to all NAWQA study-basin teams who participated and demonstrated great diligence, commitment, and enthusiasm in the collection of the samples. We thank Jude Smith and coworkers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, NM, for conducting age determinations and Dr. Ted Lange (Florida Fish and Game) for providing Hg measures in fish from South Florida. We also acknowledge the technical assistance of our colleagues Jesse Arms, Mike Walther, and Mark Olson.


USEPA, 1996, National Listing of Fish and Consumption Advisories Database: United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA-823-C-96-011, Office of Water, Washington , DC, 7 diskette set.

USEPA, 1998, Update: Listing of Fish and Wildlife Advisories: United States Environmental Protection Agency, LFWA Fact Sheet EPA-823-98-009, Office of Water, Washington , DC, 4p.

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