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Assessing water quality suitability for shortnose sturgeon in the Roanoke River, North Carolina, USA with an in situ bioassay approach

January 1, 2011

The aim of this study was to determine the suitability of water quality in the Roanoke River of North Carolina for supporting shortnose sturgeon Acipenser brevirostrum, an endangered species in the United States. Fathead minnows Pimephales promelas were also evaluated alongside the sturgeon as a comparative species to measure potential differences in fish survival, growth, contaminant accumulation, and histopathology in a 28-day in situ toxicity test. Captively propagated juvenile shortnose sturgeon (total length 49 ± 8mm, mean ±SD) and fathead minnows (total length 39 ± 3mm, mean ± SD) were used in the test and their outcomes were compared to simultaneous measurements of water quality (temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, total ammonia nitrogen, hardness, alkalinity, turbidity) and contaminant chemistry (metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, organochlorine pesticides, current use pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls) in river water and sediment. In the in situ test, there were three non-riverine control sites and eight riverine test sites with three replicate cages (25 X 15-cm (OD) clear plexiglass with 200-lm tear-resistant Nitex screen over each end) of 20 shortnose sturgeon per cage at each site. There was a single cage of fathead minnows also deployed at each site alongside the sturgeon cages. Survival of caged shortnose sturgeon among the riverine sites averaged 9% (range 1.7-25%) on day 22 of the 28-day study, whereas sturgeon survival at the non-riverine control sites averaged 64% (range 33-98%). In contrast to sturgeon, only one riverine deployed fathead minnow died (average 99.4% survival) over the 28-day test period and none of the control fathead minnows died. Although chemical analyses revealed the presence of retene (7-isopropyl-1-methylphenanthrene), a pulp and paper mill derived compound with known dioxin-like toxicity to early life stages of fish, in significant quantities in the water (251-603ngL-1) and sediment (up to 5000ngg-1 dry weight) at several river sites, no correlation was detected of adverse water quality conditions or measured contaminant concentrations to the poor survival of sturgeon among riverine test sites. Histopathology analysis determined that the mortality of the river deployed shortnose sturgeon was likely due to liver and kidney lesions from an unknown agent(s). Given the poor survival of shortnose sturgeon (9%) and high survival of fathead minnows (99.4%) at the riverine test sites, our study indicates that conditions in the Roanoke River are incongruous with the needs of juvenile shortnose sturgeon and that fathead minnows, commonly used standard toxicity test organisms, do not adequately predict the sensitivity of shortnose sturgeon. Therefore, additional research is needed to help identify specific limiting factors and management actions for the enhancement and recovery of this imperiled fish species. 

Publication Year 2011
Title Assessing water quality suitability for shortnose sturgeon in the Roanoke River, North Carolina, USA with an in situ bioassay approach
DOI 10.1111/j.1439-0426.2010.01570.x
Authors W.G. Cope, F.M. Holliman, T.J. Kwak, N.C. Oakley, P.R. Lazaro, D. Shea, T. Augspurger, J.M. Law, J.P. Henne, K.M. Ware
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Applied Ichthyology
Index ID 70036673
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse