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Lake levels and water quality in comparison to fish mercury body burdens, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, 2013–15

January 18, 2017

Within Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, lake levels are controlled by a series of dams to support a variety of uses. Previous research indicates a link between these artificially maintained water levels, referred to as rule curves, and mercury concentrations in fish owing to the drying and rewetting of wetlands and other nearshore areas, which may release methylmercury into the water when inundated. The U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse cooperated in a study to assess the importance of lake-level fluctuation and other factors affecting mercury concentrations in Perca flavescens (yellow perch) in the lakes of Voyageurs National Park. For this study, mercury body burdens were determined for young-of-the-year yellow perch collected from the large lakes within Voyageurs National Park during 2013–15. These mercury body burdens were compared to lake levels and water-quality constituents from the same period.

Field properties and profiles of lake water quality indicated that Sand Point, Little Vermilion, and Crane Lakes were anoxic at times near the lake bottom sediments, where sulfate-reducing bacteria may convert mercury to methylmercury. The median dissolved sulfate concentration was highest in Crane Lake, the median total organic carbon concentration was highest in Sand Point Lake, and the median total phosphorus concentration was highest in Kabetogama Lake, all of which is consistent with previous research. All lakes had median chlorophyll a concentrations of 3.6 micrograms per liter or less with the exception of Kabetogama Lake, where the median concentrations were 4.3 micrograms per liter for the midlake sites and 7.1 micrograms per liter and 9.0 micrograms per liter for the nearshore sites.

Mercury concentrations in sampled fish varied widely between years and among lakes, from 14.7 nanograms per gram in fish samples from Kabetogama Lake in 2015 to 178 nanograms per gram in fish samples from Crane Lake in 2014. Data from this study can be combined with ongoing hydrologic modeling studies to evaluate trends in the mercury body burden of fish and different water-level management scenarios prescribed by the 2000 Rule Curves and the 1970 Rule Curves.