Mercury accumulation in the fish community of a sub-Arctic lake in relation to trophic position and carbon sources



  • 1Stable isotope analysis has improved understanding of trophic relationships among biota. Coupled with contaminant analysis, stable isotope analysis has also been used for tracing the pattern and extent of biomagnification of contaminants in aquatic food webs.
  • 2Combined analysis of nitrogen (δ 15 N) and carbon (δ 13 C) isotopes from fish species in a sub-Arctic lake were related to tissue mercury (Hg) concentrations to assess whether carbon sources influenced Hg accumulation in fish, in addition to trophic position.
  • 3Statistical models were used to estimate Hg biomagnification and uptake, to elucidate Hg accumulation dynamics and to appraise the relative importance of Hg exposure routes for the fish species.
  • 4Species Hg contamination increased as a function of trophic position (δ 15 N) and was inversely related to the δ 13 C signature. Species connected to the benthic food chain had lower Hg concentrations than species connected to the pelagic food chain. Species undergoing ontogenetic dietary shifts with increasing size, e.g. lake trout Salvelinus namaycush , also showed increased Hg concentrations with increasing reliance on pelagic fish as prey.
  • 5The results indicate that both vertical (trophic) and horizontal (habitat) food web structure influence Hg concentrations in fish tissue.
  • 6The biomagnification and uptake models indicated that contamination at the base of the food chain in the lake exceeded estimates for more southerly environments, thereby demonstrating the importance of dietary and water column Hg exposure routes in the sub-Arctic for determining Hg concentrations in fish.
  • 7Overall, the data reported here demonstrate how a combination of ecological concepts (food webs), developing ecological methods (stable isotopes) and environmental geochemistry can combine profitably to indicate the risks of exposure to environmental contaminants. Additional studies of the dynamics of Hg accumulation in the food webs of sub-Arctic lakes are needed, particularly in the light of the estimated high biomagnification rates and the heavy reliance of Inuit communities on subsistence fish harvests.