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Open-File Report 2015–1106

Prepared for the California State Water Resources Control Board, Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program

Estimating Exposure of Piscivorous Birds and Sport Fish to Mercury in California Lakes Using Prey Fish Monitoring—A Predictive Tool for Managers

By Joshua T. Ackerman, C. Alex Hartman, Collin A. Eagles-Smith, Mark P. Herzog, Jay Davis, Gary Ichikawa, and Autumn Bonnema

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (4 MB)Introduction

Numerous water bodies in California are listed under the Clean Water Act as being impaired due to mercury (Hg) contamination. The Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP), via the Bioaccumulation Oversight Group (BOG), has recently completed statewide surveys of contaminants in sport fish tissue from more than 250 lakes and rivers in California and throughout coastal waters. This effort focused on human health issues but did not include beneficial uses by wildlife. Many piscivorous birds such as grebes, terns, cormorants, and mergansers eat fish smaller than those that were sampled by BOG, and sport fish Hg concentrations are not always indicative of wildlife exposure to Hg; therefore, the BOG surveys could not address whether wildlife were at risk due to Hg-induced reproductive impairment in these lakes.

We used western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and Clark’s grebes (Aechmophorus clarkii) as our index of wildlife exposure to Hg in California lakes. Grebes are widely distributed in lakes throughout California and, as piscivorous waterbirds, are near the top of the food chain in lakes. Additionally, grebes become flightless after they arrive at their summer locations. Thus, grebes are useful representatives for wildlife risk from local, lake-specific contaminant exposure. Grebes also breed at many lakes throughout California, making them susceptible to impaired reproduction due to local Hg contamination.

We developed a tool for estimating wildlife and sport fish risk from Hg exposure based on Hg concentrations in prey fish. This quantitative tool can be used to predict Hg concentrations in grebe blood, grebe eggs, and sport fish, thus facilitating a feasible alternative for adequately estimating wildlife exposure when more comprehensive wildlife sampling is not possible. Specifically, we sampled grebes, prey fish, and sport fish simultaneously at 25 lakes throughout California during the spring and summer of 2012 and 2013 when breeding birds are particularly vulnerable to Hg-induced reproductive impairment. We selected lakes based on a combination of factors, including lakes

  1. from southern and northern California,
  2. of various sizes, shapes, and elevations,
  3. with a range of sport fish Hg exposure levels ,
  4. where largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) was the primary sport fish, and
  5. with a history of use by grebes.

Using these factors ensured that our results are representative of a broad range of lakes and reservoirs in California and are comparable to prior BOG studies.

Specifically, we addressed three management questions:

  1. Does methylmercury pose significant risks to aquatic life in a representative sample of California lakes and reservoirs?
  2. Can a correlational approach be applied on a statewide basis to estimate risks to birds?
  3. What are appropriate water-quality monitoring requirements to address methylmercury exposure in wildlife?

First posted May 22, 2015

For additional information, contact:
Director, Western Ecological Research Center
U.S. Geological Survey
3020 State University Drive East
Sacramento, California 95819

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Suggested citation:

Ackerman, J.T., Hartman, C.A., Eagles-Smith, C.A., Herzog, M.P., Davis, J., Ichikawa, G., and Bonnema, A., 2015, Estimating exposure of piscivorous birds and sport fish to mercury in California lakes using prey fish monitoring—A predictive tool for managers: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2015-1106, 48 p.,

ISSN 2331-1258 (online)



Executive Summary



Results and Discussion

Conclusions and Management Implications

References Cited

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