Methylmercury contamination of fisheries from centuries of industrial atmospheric emissions negatively impacts humans and wild-life worldwide. The response of fish methylmercury concentrations to changes in mercury deposition has been difficult to establish because sediments/soils contain large pools of historical contamination, and many factors in addition to deposition affect fish mercury. To test directly the response of fish contamination to changing mercury deposition, we conducted a whole-ecosystem experiment, increasing the mercury load to a lake and its watershed by the addition of enriched stable mercury isotopes. The isotopes allowed us to distinguish between experimentally applied mercury and mercury already present in the ecosystem and to examine bioaccumulation of mercury deposited to different parts of the watershed. Fish methylmercury concentrations responded rapidly to changes in mercury deposition over the first 3 years of study. Essentially all of the increase in fish methylmercury concentrations came from mercury deposited directly to the lake surface. In contrast, <1% of the mercury isotope deposited to the watershed was exported to the lake. Steady state was not reached within 3 years. Lake mercury isotope concentrations were still rising in lake biota, and watershed mercury isotope exports to the lake were increasing slowly. Therefore, we predict that mercury emissions reductions will yield rapid (years) reductions in fish methylmercury concentrations and will yield concomitant reductions in risk. However, a full response will be delayed by the gradual export of mercury stored in watersheds. The rate of response will vary among lakes depending on the relative surface areas of water and watershed. ?? 2007 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
Additional Publication Details
Whole-ecosystem study shows rapid fish-mercury response to changes in mercury deposition
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America