by Harry Vogel, Executive Director, Loon Preservation Committee
of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire
Methyl mercury is one of the most toxic and biologically active forms of mercury and is readily taken up by fish, loons, other wildlife, and humans. Significant exposure of wildlife to mercury is almost exclusively from the consumption of methyl mercury in fish. On many lakes in New Hampshire, fish mercury levels are higher than those thought to cause impaired reproduction in loons (Barr 1986).
With a diet that consists almost entirely of fish, loons are extremely valuable indicators of the health of our environment and the threat that elevated mercury poses. Because they are long-lived, high-trophic-level predators (McIntyre 1988), loons are at risk from mercury and other contaminants that bioaccumulate over time and biomagnify up the food chain. Individual loons and potentially entire breeding populations are impacted by elevated levels of mercury in the environment.
The Loon Preservation Committee, BioDiversity Research Institute, and other members of the Northeast Loon Study Working Group have conducted research over the past six years to determine the threat that mercury poses to loons in New Hampshire. This research has included collecting inviable loon eggs to determine causes of egg inviability and to measure mercury concentrations in eggs; capturing loons to sample mercury and other contaminants in feathers and blood; and sampling loons over successive years to determine the rate at which mercury is accumulating in loons.
Preliminary results of cooperative studies in New Hampshire and Maine have shown that loons with high mercury levels demonstrate abnormal behaviors that affect their abilities to defend a territory and raise young (Burgess et al. 1998; Nocera and Taylor 1998; Evers et al. 1999). Specifically, studies by the Loon Preservation Committee and other members of the Northeast Loon Study Working Group have revealed the following:
These findings suggest that mercury could be affecting the longevity and productivity of loons in New Hampshire. A population model jointly developed by the BioDiversity Research Institute in Maine and the Environmental Protection Agency demonstrates that mercury is a significant contributing factor in a decline in productivity for loons in New Hampshire. If the current trend is not reversed, it will result in negative population growth for loons, a threatened species in New Hampshire. In addition to loons, mercury poses a risk to other wildlife species that live in aquatic habitats or prey on fish, including mink, otter, Belted Kingfishers and Bald Eagles.
Concentrations of mercury in loon eggs and in adult loons, and the accumulation of mercury in individual loons over time, suggest that current levels of mercury emissions are high enough to pose a threat to loons and other wildlife in New Hampshire (Evers et al. 1998c). The United States Environmental Protection Agency=s Mercury Study Report to Congress (1997) indicates direct links between local mercury emissions and high levels of mercury in fish. Although mercury can be transported over long distances in the atmosphere, the majority of airborne mercury deposition is thought to be from local or regional sources (NESCAUM 1998). Therefore, a reduction in mercury from these sources would reduce the amount of mercury in New Hampshire=s environment, to the benefit of loons, other wildlife, and people.
LPC strongly supports any initiative to reduce mercury emissions into the atmosphere from point sources in New Hampshire.
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Evers, D.C., P.S. Reaman, D. Major, B. Hanson and R. Poppenga. 1998a. AAssessing the risk of mercury in a breeding population of common loons in New England@ presented at the regional mercury conference in Fredericton, N.B.
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