'Happy fish' don't make for a healthy Niagara River - The Buffalo News
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'Happy fish' don't make for a healthy Niagara River

A cartooned crab from a late 1980s Walt Disney musical sang about happy fish “under the sea."

As it turns out, some fish in the Niagara River may be happy because of anti-depressants, according to new research by scientists from the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State.

The study showed common bass and walleye in the Niagara River were found to be laced with a pharmaceutical “cocktail” including such chemicals as norsetraline, the active ingredient in Zoloft, and norfluoxetine, a metabolite of the active ingredient in the anti-depressants Prozac and Sarafem.

The effect of the anti-depressants can make fish indifferent to predators, food and even reproduction.

“This is like the canary in the coalmine,” said Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja, a research scientist at SUNY Buffalo State’s Great Lakes Center. “You start wondering how long ecosystems can support us.”

Although the levels of anti-depressants don’t pose dangers to humans consuming the fish, they could be a big problem for the food web and aquatic ecosystem.

The Bird Island Pier which separates the Black Rock Canal, left, from the Niagara River, right, as viewed from the new observation platform near the Peace Bridge, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. A recent study shows common bass and walleye in the Niagara River were found to be laced with a pharmaceutical “cocktail.” (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The cocktail of pharmaceuticals – which can also include painkillers, caffeine and endocrine disrupting contraceptives – get into the water in discharges and sewer overflows from wastewater treatment plants.

Anti-depressants showed the most profound results in the study.

Humans excrete the anti-depressants through urine which then passes through the water treatment process.

Previous laboratory studies showed anti-depressants affect fish behaviors, but biologist Pérez-Fuentetaja and chemist Diana S. Aga – a co-author on the study from the University at Buffalo – found for the first time that fish are accumulating the drugs from the environment where they live.

“It’s more than a threat, it’s a reality. It’s happening,” Pérez-Fuentetaja said. “It’s in the natural environment, and it’s in the Great Lakes.”

In some cases, that bio-accumulation was at levels 20 or more times higher than the drug’s levels in the Niagara River.

“You’ve heard of ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’? Well, not really,” Aga said.

Solving the problem might need to start with the wastewater treatment plants, which narrowly focus on killing disease-causing bacteria and removing solids from sewage but ignore treatment of emerging chemicals like pharmaceuticals, authors concluded.

“There are so many other chemicals that are not prioritized that impact our environment,” Aga said. “As a result, wildlife is exposed to all of these chemicals. Fish are receiving this cocktail of drugs 24-hours-a-day, and we are now finding these drugs in their brains.”

Their revelation has already gained international attention across the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

Pérez-Fuentetaja and Aga’s research was born from an earlier Great Lakes Center and UB collaborative study into the health of the Niagara River’s emerald shiner populations.

Fish that were collected as predators in the 2015 emerald shiner study were used again in this latest research.

“I like to get all the science I can get out them,” Pérez-Fuentetaja said.

Instead of checking the stomach contents of bass, walleye and yellow perch as they did in the shiner study, researchers and their Ph.D. students analyzed the chemical contents of the brains, liver, muscle and gonads to make their latest discovery.

As part of the dissection, students removed the brains of fish from 10 different species, which ranged from the size of a pea in a walleye or bass to one as small as a grain of rice, as in the yellow perch.

They ground the tissue down in time-consuming, labor-intensive laboratory processes and then used organic solvents and vibration to separate the composition of the brain tissue, isolating chemicals from pesticides to road salt.

Also included were pharmaceuticals like caffeine, ibuprofin, anti-depressants and others used in MRI procedures.

“The one that mainly stuck out was the anti-depressants,” Aga said.

Researchers said the highest concentration of a single drug – Zoloft’s active ingredient, norsertraline – was found in a rock bass.

That same fish also had “a cocktail of other antidepressants” including sertraline and norfluoxetine, a metabolite of the active ingredient in the anti-depressants Prozac and Sarafem, they said.

With a more than 400 percent increase in anti-depressant use dating back to the late 1980s, that might not be too surprising.

But, it’s worrisome, according to the study’s authors.

“What happens to the population if they’re not interested in mating?” Pérez-Fuentetaja asked. “Or, if they don’t care if they get eaten?”

Randolph Singh, one of Aga’s recent Ph.D. graduates, said unnatural changes to fish behavior could disrupt the delicate species-to-species balance that stabilizes the whole ecosystem.

“The risk that the drugs pose to biodiversity is real, and scientists are just beginning to understand what the consequences might be,” Singh said.

More research will be required to learn how the pharmaceuticals might affect other wildlife in the food web.

Those could include the common tern, cormorants or other species that feed on the Niagara’s fish.

As Pérez-Fuentetaja and Aga answered a reporter’s questions about their latest report, they were already drawing up a roadmap for where their research will take them next.

“We have a good partnership,” Aga said.

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