Elevated mercury concentrations in fish in lakes in the Mackenzie River Basin: The role of physical, chemical, and biological factors
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During the mid-1990s and through the early 2000s, researchers determined that elevated mercury concentrations were a common occurrence in predatory fish in many lakes in the Mackenzie River Basin (MRB), located in northern Canada. Here we present the results of studies investigating factors contributing to higher mercury concentrations in fish in many of these lakes. Twenty-two percent of lake trout, 33% of northern pike, and 50% of walleye populations had mean mercury concentrations >0.5 microg/g, the guideline for the commercial sale of fish. Higher mercury concentrations were strongly associated with the relatively old age of MRB predatory fish; mean age ranged from 7.6 to 24.9 years for the three species. In contrast, none of the lake trout sampled in eight lakes further south in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta had mean mercury concentrations >0.5 microg/g; fish also were younger (mean age 6 years for the 8 lakes). Mercury concentrations in MRB fish generally increased with fish length, age, and trophic feeding although the nature of these relationships varied with the lake. Mean length was a good predictor of mean mercury concentrations in walleye populations across the study lakes but not for whitefish, lake trout, and pike; age was a good predictor for lake trout and walleye. Mercury concentrations in water and invertebrates were similar to those observed in more southerly regions where fish do not have elevated mercury concentrations. Mercury concentrations tended to be higher in fish in smaller vs. larger lakes and as a probable consequence of higher summer epilimnion temperatures, which favour a higher net methylation rate, and higher mercury and methyl mercury concentrations in water which enter these lakes from the watershed. Increasing fishing pressures on MRB lakes may be a means of reducing mean fish age, improving growth rates, and decreasing mercury body burdens. Increased global warming may result in higher mercury concentrations in fish through increased water temperatures, a longer ice free season, and increased release of stored mercury from the watershed into these lakes.
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