Study Shows Great Swamp Fish Deformities Caused By Contaminated Water

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Contamination
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(Photo Credit: New Jersey Hills Media Group )

Article courtesy of PHIL GARBER| Feb 6, 2016 | New Jersey Hills Media Group | Shared as educational material | Reprinted with permission of New Jersey Hills Media Group/Observer-Tribune

A new federal study shows that most male smallmouth bass examined in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge had female characteristics, as a result of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the water.

Similar situations were found in the Wallkill River, which empties into the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge.

The N.J. Sierra Club said the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has caused the problem by not protecting the waterways from pollutants from sewer discharges.

A DEP official, however, said the issue is a global problem and that there is no clear way to avoid the contamination in waterways.

The study by U.S. Geological Service (USGS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers showed that 85 percent of male smallmouth bass and 27 percent of male largemouth bass tested in waters in or near 19 national wildlife refuges in the Northeast U.S. were intersex.

Intersex is when one sex develops characteristics of the opposite sex. It is linked with exposure of fish to endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can affect the reproductive system and cause the development of characteristics of the opposite sex, such as immature eggs in the testes of male fish. Intersex is a global issue, as wild-caught fish affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been found in locations across the world, the USGS said.

Estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals come from a variety of sources, from natural estrogens to synthetic pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals that enter the waterways. Examples include some types of birth control pills, natural sex hormones in livestock manures, herbicides and pesticides.

“It is not clear what the specific cause of intersex is in these fish,” said Luke Iwanowicz, a USGS research biologist and lead author of the paper. “This study was designed to identify locations that may warrant further investigation. Chemical analyses of fish or water samples at collection sites were not conducted, so we cannot attribute the observation of intersex to specific, known estrogenic endocrine—disrupting chemicals.”

This prevalence of intersex fish is much higher than that found in a similar USGS study that evaluated intersex in black basses in nine river basins in the United States. That study did not include river basins in the Northeast.

“The results of this new study show the extent of endocrine disrupting chemicals on refuge lands using bass as an indicator for exposures that may affect fish and other aquatic species,” said Fred Pinkney, a USFWS contaminants biologist and study coauthor. “To help address this issue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service encourages management actions that reduce runoff into streams, ponds and lakes — both on and off of refuge lands.”

Jeff Tittel, president of the N.J. Sierra Club, said the issue is symptomatic of “a failure of government to protect these waterways and to deal with the pharmacological issue that’s caused this serious problem.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said that scientists continue to study the impact of unregulated chemicals on endocrine disruptors that can cause deformities.

“This is a global issue,” said DEP spokesman Lawrence Hajna. “This is not just a New Jersey issue.”

Michael Horne, superintendent of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, said there is no process to treat endocrine disruptors which are found in the treated wastewater discharge from most if not all sewer plants. Endocrine disruptors are found in birth control pills and in other drugs.

“I don’t think the current sewer treatment process could or would remove these chemicals from the water,” Horne said. “There is a likelihood that those chemicals are being introduced into waterways from sewer plants.”

Tittel said the sexual deformities in the male fish “may be attributed to hormone-filled runoff of pesticides and other pollutants in the water. The state of New Jersey has failed to afford these waterbodies the protection they deserve and now we’re seeing the effect of that. This report is an alarm bell going off about the impact of chemicals and pharmaceuticals to important waterways.”

Canary In A Mine

Tittel said the condition of the fish is like “the canary in the coal mine. It shows that we have significant problems in our waterways from chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Even in a place considered rural and environmentally sensitive, we’re seeing serious concerns.”

The DEP is continuing to monitor the science on this topic, and has taken steps in conjunction with other state and local agencies to educate the public about not disposing their prescription medications down the toilet, said Hajna.

“But how to address the fact that wastewater treatment plants don’t capture all of these chemicals before discharging their effluent remains the subject of many studies that are looking at ecological impacts, relative health risks, and potential costs of various treatment technologies,” Hajna said.

He said the most recent USGS study adds to the knowledge of the issue and impacts to ecological systems.

“But the scientific community overall still has more questions than answers on human health impacts,” Hajna said.

He said the DEP will continue to evaluate emerging science that from across the world while evaluating the work of the federal EPA looking at the science of emerging contaminants of concern.

Julia Somers of Harding, director of the N.J. Highlands Coalition, said her initial concern is that the DEP is waiting for the federal government to study the problem. She said the DEP has many experts who could be expediting research.

“It’s unfortunate the DEP appears to be passing the buck to other agencies to do the research,” Somers said.

Tittel said that four governors have proposed to classify the Wallkill River as the highest protected, Category 1 stream. But Tittel said the governors have “backed down due to political pressure for local development interests and politicians in Sussex County.”

Tittel said the Wallkill provides habitat for the bog turtle, drains into a national wildlife refuge, is an integral part of water supply in the state of New York, and has flooding problems due to overdevelopment.

“It has not been afforded the protection it needs due to political games. The river is now also home to nitrogen, phosphorus, and other chemical pollutants,” Tittel said. “The upgrading of streams to Category 1 is one of the most important tools we have under the New Jersey Clean Water Act for protecting our waters from pollution.”

Tittel said the river has not been designated as Category I because the state “has taken care of politically-connected developers over clean water.”

The Walkill was originally nominated for C1 status in 1988 because of the presence of federally-protected bog turtles. In 1988 it was denied categorization so that the Sussex County sewage plant could be built. In 1993 it was nominated under the Florio administration but the Whitman administration pulled it to allow for the expansion of the sewage plant and new development, Tittel said.

“They played games to allow for more expansion of the Crystal Springs development in Hardyston to hook into the sewage capacity, despite it being bog turtle habitat,” Tittel said. “In 2000, they pushed through the Vernon marsh for development in Sparta.”

Tittel said that in 2007, then-DEP Director Lisa Jackson proposed the Wallkill River for a Category 1 designation but it was rejected once again by the Corzine administration “under political pressure from certain politicians and development interests.

He said that rather than protecting the waterways in the area, the state has instead supported more development. For example, he said that in 2004 Vernon, Lafayette and other towns were left out of the Highlands Act protection so as not to impede ski area and big sprawl projects.

He said the same thing has been happening with the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, a wilderness area that drains into the Passaic River’s drinking water. Tittle said that in 1988 expansion of the Chatham Township sewage plant was permitted, discharging directly into the Great Swamp.

Other sewage plant expansions in the area include ones for a major office park expansion at Giralda Farms and others in Morris Township and Florham Park.

Tittel said the Christie administration has rolled back protections for C1 streams and their buffers. Proposed flood hazard rules would allow for development within important protective buffers of the streams, Tittel said.

“New Jersey has failed to protect the Wallkill River and the Great Swamp National Refuge,” Tittel said. “We could have been protecting the river against pollution for the past 30 years had we designated it the C1 stream it should be. Instead, the state continued to side with development interests over clean water.”

The USGS report can be seen at

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