Study finds Florida bonefish contaminated with prescription drugs

A bonefish swims above seagrass on a South Florida flat.  A new study has found traces of pharmaceutical drugs in dozens of bonefish from Biscayne Bay to the Florida Keys.

A bonefish swims above seagrass on a South Florida flat. A new study has found traces of pharmaceutical drugs in dozens of bonefish from Biscayne Bay to the Florida Keys.

According to a study published this week, a cocktail of prescription drugs – ranging from blood pressure medications to opioids – ended up in the flesh of the South Florida population of bonefish, one of the most sought after fish. of State.

The culprit is a sewage system designed to filter out feces and other pollution, but not pharmaceuticals, according to researchers from Florida International University and the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

“The source of this contamination is human waste and a sewage treatment infrastructure that has been pushed beyond its capabilities and technological capabilities, at least to meet today’s demands,” Jim said. McDuffie, President and CEO of Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, during the presentation. the study at Florida State University in Tallahassee on Wednesday.

The conservation group and the CRF published their collective research this week. They found 93 of the bonefish sampled in Biscayne Bay and on flats surrounding the Keys since their survey launched in 2018 had traces of an average of seven prescription drugs in their systems. And, researchers found 17 alarming drugs in just one bonefish.

“Pharmaceuticals are an invisible threat, unlike algal blooms or murky waters,” said Jennifer Schopf Rehage, senior researcher and associate professor of Earth and Environment at CRF, in a statement. “Yet these results tell us that they pose a formidable threat to our fisheries and underscore the urgent need to address our long-standing wastewater treatment infrastructure issues.”

The list of 58 drugs found in fish includes drugs for blood pressure, antidepressants and prostate treatment, as well as antibiotics and painkillers, including opioids.

“These results are troubling on many fronts,” McDuffie said. “Pharmaceutical contamination has been detected at levels high enough to have biological effects on fish, thereby posing a risk or threat to our fishery. And, second, the contamination is not limited to bonefish, but is also likely present in other fish – crab, lobster and other near-shore marine species.

Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, told the Miami Herald on Thursday that this amount of medication would be considered a “cocktail” of medication for a human, and a patient’s doctor would not take them. would usually prescribe only after determining how they would interact with each other. So the next step is to try to understand how these drugs might impact bonefish behavior, from breeding, migration and feeding patterns.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Adams said.

Researchers also want to know which other species of flatfish are similarly affected, not only for the sake of the environment, but also because of the potential impact it could have on recreational saltwater fishing in the region. Florida, which is $9.2 billion a year. industry that directly supports nearly 90,000 jobs, according to the study.

Keys wastewater treatment

In 2015, county and municipal governments in the Florida Keys fulfilled their state mandate by building a centralized sewage system throughout the island chain to prevent further untreated sewage from leaking out of old septic tanks in coastal waters.

The massive effort cost nearly $70 million and achieved significant progress in stopping human waste from seeping into the ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, which all surround the Keys. Recent research also indicates that the project is helping to improve the health of the reef system of the Keys, the only barrier reef in North America.

However, the study suggests that the engineers who designed the system did not predict, or prevent, prescription pharmaceutical drugs from leaking out of treated wastewater. And, traces of the drug have found their way into the local population of at least one of South Florida’s most prized fish.

Although the Keys’ centralized sewage system was successful in keeping many contaminants away from coastal waters, it was not designed for pharmaceuticals, the researchers said. Very few in Florida or around the world are, Rehage said, because they don’t use technology like reverse osmosis and carbon filters to trap micropollutants.

And, compounding the problem, is that several areas of the Keys are injecting treated wastewater into shallow water wells instead of deep water wells. In the Upper Keys, Key Largo, which has its own special sewage treatment tax district, and the village of Islamorada use deep wells. But, the small town of Layton, Key Colony Beach, the town of Marathon and Duck Key use shallow wells.

A group of Middle Keys citizens filed a lawsuit in federal court last month under the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, seeking to stop Marathon from continuing to use its low-well injection system. deep.

Big Pine Key has deep well injection, as does the city of Key West, but Stock Island, just north of Key West, does not.

“It’s kind of a hodgepodge,” Rehage said.

Surprising discovery

The study’s origins came from research into the decline of bonefish fishing in the 1990s, which didn’t begin to rebound until around 2014, Rehage said.

“There’s been a very severe drop,” Rehage said in an interview. “They were almost gone.”

The bonefish, or “gray ghosts of the flats”, is a fast silvery fish much sought after by anglers looking for a rod and reel challenge.

“South Florida is one of the few places in the United States where anglers have the unique opportunity to fish for bonefish, and the shallow saltwater plains of the Florida Keys and Biscayne Bay are considered a world-class destination for catching large trophy bonefish,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says on its website.

FWC Stewards designated bonefish as a catch-and-release-only species in 2013.

Former President George W. Bush, right, lightweight fishing guide George Hommell, left, and the President’s grandson, Jeb Bush, prepare to release two live licensed fish that Bush and his grandson captured on Tuesday, August 22, 1995, while competing in the George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament in the Florida Keys. ANDY NEWMAN AP file

Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and FIU researchers began working with scientists from Umeå University and Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences to study the health of South Florida’s bonefish fishery in 2018.

They sent blood and tissue samples from dead bonefish being captured to their Swedish counterparts for analysis.

They weren’t necessarily looking for pharmaceuticals, but that’s what lab results from Sweden showed.

Rehage and his team then set off for the next three years to catch more bonefish to test to see if the initial sample was an anomaly. Not only was it not, but the problem was much bigger than they originally suspected. Samples of bonefish caught and released from Key Biscayne to Key West contained several prescription drugs in their systems.

“What struck us the most was how we found them everywhere,” Rehage told the Herald. “We had no zeros.”

The scientists fished their subjects with the help of volunteer guides from the Florida Keys backcountry – a segment of the professional angling community known for its commitment to conservation – including one who is currently to get his doctorate from FIU, said Rehage.

“It was fantastic to have the support of the guide community,” said Rehage.

Although the United States is a drug-heavy society, there are no regulations on the levels of prescription drugs allowed in treated wastewater. According to the study, the average American consumes 18 prescriptions per year and 4 billion drugs are prescribed nationwide each year, with Florida ranking fourth in consumption.

“The rate of production and release of these pharmaceuticals into the environment far exceeds our ability to assess their safety once they enter the environment,” Rehage said.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for and the Miami Herald. Prior to joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Delaware.

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