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Driven by surges in global gold prices and additional socio-economic factors, artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in the Global South is increasing and driving emissions of significant quantities of mercury (Hg) into the air and freshwater. Hg can be toxic to animal and human populations and exacerbate the degradation of neotropical freshwater ecosystems. We examined drivers of Hg accumulation in fish that inhabit oxbow lakes of Peru's Madre de Dios, a region with high biodiversity value and increasing human populations that depend on ASGM. We hypothesized that fish Hg levels would be driven by local ASGM activities, by environmental Hg exposure, by water quality, and by fish trophic level. We sampled fish in 20 oxbow lakes spanning protected areas and areas subject to ASGM during the dry season. Consistent with previous findings, Hg levels were positively associated with ASGM activities, and were higher in larger, carnivorous fish and where water had lower dissolved oxygen levels. In addition, we found a negative relationship between fish mercury levels associated with ASGM and the occurrence of the piscivorous giant otter. The link between fine-scale quantification of spatial ASGM activity and Hg accumulation, as indicated by the result that in the lotic environment, localized effects of gold mining activities are stronger drivers (77 % model support) of Hg accumulation than environmental exposure (23 %) constitutes a novel contribution to a growing body of literature on Hg contamination. Our findings provide additional evidence of high Hg exposure risks to neotropical human and top carnivore populations subject to the impacts of ASGM, which depend on freshwater ecosystems undergoing gradual degradation. The documented spatial variation in Hg accumulation and increased Hg levels in carnivorous fish should serve as a warning to human communities in Madre de Dios to avoid the proximity of high-intensity gold mining areas and minimize local carnivorous fish consumption.

Original publication




Journal article


Science of the Total Environment

Publication Date