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Experimental evidence for the recovery of mercury-contaminated fish populations

Cite this dataset

Hrenchuk, Lee et al. (2021). Experimental evidence for the recovery of mercury-contaminated fish populations [Dataset]. Dryad.


Anthropogenic releases of mercury (Hg) are a human health issue because the potent toxicant methylmercury (MeHg), formed primarily by microbial methylation of inorganic Hg in aquatic ecosystems, bioaccumulates to high concentrations in fish consumed by humans. Predicting the efficacy of Hg pollution controls on fish MeHg concentrations is complex because many factors influence the production and bioaccumulation of MeHg. Here we conducted a 15-year whole-ecosystem, single-factor experiment to determine the magnitude and timing of reductions in fish MeHg concentrations following reductions in Hg additions to a boreal lake and its watershed. During the seven-year addition phase, we applied enriched Hg isotopes to increase local Hg wet deposition rates fivefold. The Hg isotopes became increasingly incorporated into the food web as MeHg, predominantly from additions to the lake because most of those added to the watershed remained there. Thereafter, isotopic additions were stopped, resulting in an approximately 100% reduction in Hg loading to the lake. The concentration of labelled MeHg quickly decreased by more than 85% in lower trophic level organisms, initiating rapid decreases of 38–76% of MeHg concentration in large-bodied fish populations in eight years. Although Hg loading from watersheds may not decline in step with lowering deposition rates, this experiment clearly demonstrates that any reduction in Hg loadings to lakes, whether from direct deposition or runoff, will have immediate benefits to fish consumers.


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