Pharmaceutical contaminants in Florida bony fish discovered during study


Bonefish tested in South Florida contain trace amounts of pharmaceutical contaminants.

Some unexpected data has emerged in a study that can usually be boiled down to drug testing for saltwater fish species in Florida.

The disturbing findings are part of a research project which dates back three years and looked for traces of pharmaceutical contaminants found in bonefish from Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys.

Florida International University scientist dr. Jennifer Rehage and the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (MTB) research associates, in partnership with Sweden’s Umeå University, sampled 93 bonefish in South Florida, finding an average of five pharmaceuticals per bonefish. In fact, mind-boggling traces of 17 different drugs have been found in a single fish caught in Biscayne Bay.

The ever-growing list of medications includes antidepressants, heart medications, opioids, and antibiotics, to name a few. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical waste most often comes from human wastewater that is not removed by conventional water treatment systems.

Now they are found in these sport fish, which could ultimately have negative consequences on reproductive rates and survival. As the press release announcing the results stated, “pharmaceutical contaminants have been shown to affect all aspects of fish life, including diet, activity, sociability and migratory behavior.”

In one CRF press articleDr Rehage reportedly said: “These findings are truly alarming. Pharmaceuticals are an invisible threat, unlike algae blooms or murky waters. Yet these results tell us that they pose a formidable threat to our fisheries and underscore the urgent need to address our long-standing wastewater treatment infrastructure problems.

The following is a short video highlighting the results of the study.

We reached out to Dr. Rehage to ask a few more questions. Bonefish, along with other gamefish such as permit and tarpon, bring revenue from tourism and outdoor recreation to South Florida. The things that affect bonefish as well as the things they eat, where they breed, and the areas where they spend most of their time are paramount in guiding services and their customers. But on an even larger scale, these results could be a harbinger of less than ideal outcomes for the local community.

Our conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.

WOS: Bonefish eat worms, mollusks, shrimp, small crabs, and even other fish. Are any of these food species being studied?

Dr. Rehage: Yes, two to three diet studies show this, and they eat a lot of snails in the Caribbean too. Our presentation on the study shows that we also sampled prey (crabs, shrimps, toads) and that they contain more pharmaceuticals than bonefish, at an average ratio of 11 to 7.

WOS: Is the fact that bonefish feed so close to the bottom a telling factor in the study?

Dr. Rehage: Exposure can occur through water, sediment and/or food. We certainly thought bonefish would be a good model for this study because of their benthic feeding since sediments can harbor contaminants. We haven’t tested the sediment yet, but will in the future.

WOS: Do you think other sport fish species might be affected?

Dr. Rehage: Yes, if it’s in shrimp, crabs and small fish, other inshore fish should be affected as they all rely on the same prey.

WOS: Are there plans to study tarpon and permit?

Dr. Rehage: No not right now.

The work Dr. Rehage and his team are doing could impact the economic impact of sport fishing in Florida as we learn more about what this threat can mean for those in this community.

Learn more about the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust

As outdoor men and women, the word “conservationist” gets thrown around quite often when it comes to our sporting adventures, and with good reason. It is organizations like BTT that constantly watch over these waterways with a concern for conservation, in order to save them and share them with future generations.

BTT supports and executes fieldwork to help us better understand the species and habitat that are so interconnected.

They have been around since 1997 and continue to work on implementing measures such as catch and release regulations for bonefish and tarpon, as well as tagging permit programs.

Make sense of everything

By now it should be abundantly clear to all of us that water quality is not just another mantra for those of us who care about fishing. Real changes must be made to keep our waters safe and will keep them safe.

But this problem has just been discovered without it being possible to solve it yet. Pharmaceutical pollution bypasses treatment plants since there is currently no conventional filtration or cleaning system capable of eliminating it.

Although Florida has passed major legislation to modernize its water policies and provided historic funding for water quality issues, it is another contaminant affecting waterways that must be treated.

We have BTT, CRF, Dr Rehage and his team, and the support of Thanks to Umeå University for uncovering this information, but what we do with it will take more time and effort. With habitat loss and changes to freshwater flow already impacting fishing in South Florida flats, this adds another to the list of concerns.

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