Biomagnification of mercury (Hg) through lake food webs is understudied in rapidly changing northern regions, where wild-caught subsistence fish are critical to food security. We investigated estimates and among-lake variability of Hg biomagnification rates (BMR), relationships between Hg BMR and Hg levels in subsistence fish, and environmental drivers of Hg BMR in ten remote subarctic lakes in Northwest Territories, Canada. Lake-specific linear regressions between Hg concentrations (total Hg ([THg]) in fish and methyl Hg ([MeHg]) in primary consumers) and baseline-adjusted δ15N ratios were significant (p < 0.001, r2 = 0.58–0.88), indicating biomagnification of Hg through food webs of all studied lakes. Quantified using the slope of Hg-δ15N regressions, Hg BMR ranged from 0.16 to 0.25, with mean ± standard deviation of 0.20 ± 0.03). Using fish [MeHg] rather than [THg] lowered estimates of Hg BMR by ∼10%, suggesting that the use of [THg] as a proxy for [MeHg] in fish can influence estimates of Hg BMR. Among-lake variability of size-standardized [THg] in resident fish species from different trophic guilds, namely Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) and Northern Pike (Esox lucius), was not significantly explained by among-lake variability in Hg BMR. Stepwise multiple regressions indicated that among-lake variability of Hg BMR was best explained by a positive relationship with catchment forest cover (p = 0.009, r2 = 0.59), likely reflecting effects of forest cover on water chemistry of downstream lakes and ultimately, concentrations of biomagnifying MeHg (and percent MeHg of total Hg) in resident biota. These findings improve our understanding of Hg biomagnification in remote subarctic lakes.
Mercury concentrations ([Hg]) in fish reflect complex biogeochemical and ecological interactions that occur at a range of spatial and biological scales. Elucidating these interactions is crucial to understanding and predicting fish [Hg], particularly at northern latitudes, where environmental perturbations are having profound effects on land-water-animal interactions, and where fish are a critical subsistence food source. Using data from eleven subarctic lakes that span an area of ~60,000 km2 in the Dehcho Region of Northwest Territories (Canada), we investigated how trophic ecology and growth rates of fish, lake water chemistry, and catchment characteristics interact to affect [Hg] in Northern Pike (Esox lucius), a predatory fish of widespread subsistence and commercial importance. Results from linear regression and piecewise structural equation models showed that 83% of among-lake variability in Northern Pike [Hg] was explained by fish growth rates (negative) and concentrations of methyl Hg ([MeHg]) in benthic invertebrates (positive). These variables were in turn influenced by concentrations of dissolved organic carbon, MeHg (water), and total Hg (sediment) in lakes, which were ultimately driven by catchment characteristics. Lakes in relatively larger catchments and with more temperate/subpolar needleleaf and mixed forests had higher [Hg] in Northern Pike. Our results provide a plausible mechanistic understanding of how interacting processes at scales ranging from whole catchments to individual organisms influence fish [Hg], and give insight into factors that could be considered for prioritizing lakes for monitoring in subarctic regions.
A comprehensive understanding of how interactions between catchments and downstream lakes affect fish growth rate is lacking for many species and systems, yet is necessary for predicting impacts of environmental change on productivity of freshwater fish populations. We investigated among-lake variability in growth rate of Northern Pike (Esox lucius), a fish species of widespread subsistence and commercial importance. Northern Pike were captured from 11 subarctic lakes that span 60,000 km2 and four ecoregions in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada. Growth rates were related to stable isotope ratios and to lake and catchment physicochemistry. Growth, modelled using increment widths (n = 2953) measured on cleithra (n = 432), was significantly slower (p < 0.001, adj. r2 = 0.78) in lakes subject to greater inferred catchment influence, which was quantified using a combination of lake and catchment characteristics. While Northern Pike growth rate was not related to δ15N, it was positively related to δ13C (p < 0.001, adj. r2 = 0.75). Further analyses revealed that benthic invertebrates in lakes subject to greater inferred catchment influence had more depleted δ13C ratios, and we posit that Northern Pike growth is slower in these lakes because terrestrially derived organic matter has relatively lower nutritional value and bioaccessibility, but further research is necessary. By linking current among-lake variability in Northern Pike growth to trophic ecology and to both lake and catchment physicochemical data, results inform predictions of how future changes to subarctic lakes and catchments may affect fish growth and productivity.