Pathways of Methylmercury Transfer to the Water Column Across Multiple Estuaries

Friday, 19 December 2014
Amina Traore Schartup1, Prentiss H Balcom2, Robert P Mason2 and Celia Chen3, (1)Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, United States, (2)University of Connecticut, Groton, CT, United States, (3)Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, United States
Estuarine water column methylmercury (MeHg) is an important driver of bioaccumulation in pelagic organisms so it is important to understand the sources and cycling of MeHg. As MeHg biomagnifies in food webs, increased water column concentrations can be transferred to fish consumed by humans. Few studies have taken a multi-estuary approach to look at MeHg cycling in the water column of these important MeHg producing areas. We examined the distributions and partitioning of sediment and water column MeHg across a geographic range of estuaries. In 2008 we sampled 10 shallow-water estuarine sites from Maine to New Jersey, sampled 11 sites in 4 estuaries in 2009, and sampled at 3 estuarine turbidity maximum (ETM) sites in 1 estuary in 2012. Sediment measurements included both solid phase and pore water MeHg and total mercury (HgT). Water column parameters included dissolved and particulate MeHg and HgT, total suspended solids, nutrients, and dissolved organic carbon. Average suspended particle MeHg was highest at Wells (ME; 6 to 11.5 pmol/g; 4.5 to 7% of HgT) and lowest at Portsmouth (NH) and in Long Island Sound (CT-NY; 0.2 to 5.5 pmol/g; 0.25 to 3.75% of HgT). Average water column dissolved MeHg was highest in the Delaware River ETM (0.5 to 0.7 pM; 16 to 24% of HgT) and lowest at Portsmouth (0.06 to 0.12 pM; 1 to 2% of HgT). Significant positive correlations were found between MeHg and HgT across multiple estuaries in both sediment and the water column in 2008 and 2009. In contrast, water column dissolved and suspended particle MeHg do not correlate well with sediment MeHg or HgT, pore water MeHg or methylation rates in sediment across estuaries, indicating that sediment is often not a good predictor of water MeHg levels. However, ratios of average dissolved:pore water MeHg and suspended particle:sediment MeHg are close to 1 in the Delaware River ETM, suggesting that sediment supplies MeHg to the water column in this turbulent region, but average pore water MeHg was uniformly elevated above water dissolved MeHg in the other estuaries studied. Several estuaries had higher MeHg at low tide suggesting input as water was delivered from the watersheds. We conclude that the relative importance of sources is dependent on the physical (water residence time, water depth) and chemical characteristics (sediment organic carbon content) of the estuary.