Mercury methylation and bioaccumulation in Sinclair Inlet, Kitsap County, Washington

Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5063
Prepared in cooperation with Naval Facilities Engineering Command
By: , and 



The U.S. Geological Survey evaluated the transformation of mercury to bioavailable methylmercury in Sinclair Inlet, Kitsap County, Washington, and assessed the effect of the transformation processes on the mercury burden in marine organisms and sediment. In August 2008, samples of sediment, water, and biota from six sites in Sinclair Inlet and three bays representative of Puget Sound embayments were collected. The extensive sediment sampling included analysis of methylmercury in sediment and porewater, estimates of methylation production potential, and analyses of ancillary constituents associated with organic carbon and reduction-oxidation (redox) conditions to assist in interpreting the mercury results. Analyses of methylmercury in water overlying incubated cores provided an estimate of the release of methylmercury to the water column. Collection of samples for mercury species in the aqueous, particulate (suspended solids), and biological phases, and for ancillary carbon and nitrogen constituents in surface water, continued, on about a monthly schedule, at four stations through August 2009. In February, June, and August 2009, seasonal sediment samples were collected at 20 stations distributed between greater Sinclair Inlet and Operable Unit B Marine of the Bremerton naval complex, Bremerton, Washington, to examine geographical and seasonal patterns of mercury biogeochemistry of sediment in Sinclair Inlet. At six of these seasonal sediment stations, porewater was collected and triplicate core incubation experiments were done.

Median sediment-methylmercury concentrations were not statistically different between the representative bays and Sinclair Inlet. The percentage of sediment methylmercury (relative to total mercury) was actually lower in the Sinclair Inlet sites compared with the representative bays, reflecting the higher sediment total mercury concentration for the Sinclair Inlet stations compared with the representative bays. Likewise, median sediment methylmercury concentrations were not statistically different between the greater Sinclair Inlet stations and the Bremerton naval complex stations; whereas the percentage of sediment methylmercury to total mercury was lower in the Bremerton naval complex due to higher sediment total mercury concentrations than the greater Sinclair Inlet stations. The biogeochemical characteristics of each station, measured by redox, organic carbon, and the seasonal availability of nutrients controlled methylmercury biogeochemistry. Mercury methylation production potential was a function of temperature, concentration of total mercury in sediment, and the percentage of ferrous iron (relative to total measured iron) across all sites. Methylmercury porewater concentrations were best described by using concentrations of dissolved organic carbon and reduction-oxidation conditions. Likewise, the variable fluxes of methylmercury from incubated cores were best described using dissolved organic carbon and reduction-oxidation conditions.

Sinclair Inlet exhibited the classic Puget Sound biological cycle, with spring and autumn phytoplankton blooms resulting in depletion of nitrate, orthophosphate, and silicate in the surface water. Although variable in timing between 2008 and 2009, a strong corresponding seasonal trend of increased availability, incorporation, and bioaccumulation of methylmercury into the food web of Sinclair Inlet occurred during the early spring and summer growing season.

Suggested Citation

Paulson, A.J., Marvin-DiPasquale, M.C., Moran, P.W., Stewart, A.R., DeWild, J.F., Toft, J., Agee, J.L., Kakouros, E., Kieu, L.H., Carter, B., Sheibley, R.W., Cordell, J., and Krabbenhoft, D.P., 2018, Mercury methylation and bioaccumulation in Sinclair Inlet, Kitsap County, Washington: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018–5063, 63 p., 1 app.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • I. Introduction and Methods
  • II. Methylation Potential of Mercury in Sediments
  • III. Release of Mercury Species from Sediment to Water Column
  • IV. Methylmercury Accumulation in the Base of an Estuarine Food Web
  • V. Synthesis
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Supplementary Figures and Tables
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Mercury methylation and bioaccumulation in Sinclair Inlet, Kitsap County, Washington
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2018-5063
DOI 10.3133/sir20185063
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Washington Water Science Center
Description Report: x, 66 p.; Appendix Tables
Country United States
State Washington
County Kitsap County
Other Geospatial Sinclair Inlet
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details