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UNO Researchers Seek to Answer: Are Recreational Anglers at Risk From Seafood Consumption?

NEW ORLEANS — University of New Orleans biologist Erin Cox and her students are delving into the depths of the northern Gulf of Mexico and fishing for answers that could impact a popular south Louisiana pastime—recreational fishing. Their research will explore the levels of potentially harmful pollutants in fish caught by recreational anglers.

Cox’s research expertise is in coastal benthic organisms, which are the animals and plants that live on the sea floor. Her lab received a $3,000 undergraduate research grant to study the tissues of 14 fish species from artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cox is collaborating with UNO biological sciences professor Kelly Boyle and chemistry professor Phoebe Zito, who are mentoring students in fish biology and chemistry.

Arsenic, mercury, copper, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese and zinc are examples of common metals present in the environment which are known to negatively impact aquatic and human health. Although they occur naturally in the earth’s crust, anthropogenic activities such as mining, industrial wastewater and agriculture can release high concentration of heavy metals into the environment.

These metals often enter the water through runoff and are carried by rivers to the coast, eventually entering the ocean. Heavy metals can also enter the water through the atmosphere, in a process called atmospheric deposition.

One of the main risks associated with fish consumption is the presence of mercury and other heavy metals. Heavy metals, like mercury, can build up in our bodies over time. The consumption of high concentrations of heavy metals can lead to delays in development and cognitive impairments in young children.

In both children and adults, health issues of the central nervous and cardiovascular systems have been reported due to heavy metal toxicity. Heavy metals such as arsenic can cause cancer and are toxic in very small concentrations.

“This research will provide a comprehensive analysis of the risk of recreational anglers to harmful trace element pollutants when consuming fishery species from northern Gulf of Mexico artificial reefs,” said Cox.

Fish were collected from artificial reefs about 35 feet off the coast of Orange Beach, Alabama and researchers plan to get additional fish from Grand Isle, Louisiana, Cox said.

The students will examine differences in trace element concentrations in fish tissues by species, and for juvenile and adult sizes in species such as red and gray snapper, hardhead catfish and gray triggerfish, Cox said.

The students are seeking to answer three main questions:

  • Whether fish targeted by recreation angles have greater concentrations of trace element pollutants in their muscle tissues than non-target species?
  • Do targeted fishery species of legal harvest size have greater concentrations of trace element pollutants in muscle tissues than those of non-legal size?
  • Do trace element concentrations in liver or muscles differ and does one tissue type seem to be a better indicator of bioaccumulation?

Once the undergraduates complete their research, the results will be analyzed to determine how fish movement, integration and trophic position influence the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of pollutants in their tissue.


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