Chemical contaminants, health indicators, and reproductive biomarker responses in fish from the Colorado River and its tributaries

Jo Ellen Hinck, Vicki S. Blazer, Nancy D. Denslow, Kathy R. Echols, Timothy S. Gross, Tom W. May, Patrick J. Anderson, James J. Coyle, Donald E. Tillitt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


Common carp (Cyprinus carpio), black bass (Micropterus spp.), and channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) were collected from 14 sites in the Colorado River Basin (CRB) to document spatial trends in accumulative contaminants, health indicators, and reproductive biomarkers. Organochlorine residues, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin-like activity (TCDD-EQ), and elemental contaminants were measured in composite samples of whole fish, grouped by species and gender, from each site. Selenium (Se) and mercury (Hg) concentrations in fish were elevated throughout the CRB, and pesticide concentrations were greatest in fish from agricultural areas in the Lower Colorado River and Gila River. Selenium concentrations exceeded toxicity thresholds for fish (> 1.0 μg/g ww) at all CRB sites except the Gila River at Hayden, Arizona. Mercury concentrations were elevated (> 0.1 μg/g ww) in fish from the Yampa River at Lay, Colorado; the Green River at Ouray National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Utah and San Rafael, Utah; the San Juan River at Hogback Diversion, New Mexico; and the Colorado River at Gold Bar Canyon, Utah, Needles, California, and Imperial Dam, Arizona. Concentrations of p,p′-DDE were relatively high in fish from the Gila River at Arlington, Arizona (> 1.0 μg/g ww) and Phoenix, Arizona (> 0.5 μg/g ww). Concentrations of other formerly used pesticides including toxaphene, total chlordanes, and dieldrin were also greatest at these two sites but did not exceed toxicity thresholds. Currently used pesticides such as Dacthal, endosulfan, γ-HCH, and methoxychlor were also greatest in fish from the Gila River downstream of Phoenix. Total polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs; > 0.11 μg/g ww) and TCDD-EQs (> 5 pg/g ww) exceeded wildlife guidelines in fish from the Gila River at Phoenix. Hepatic ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) activity was also relatively high in carp from the Gila River at Phoenix and in bass from the Green River at Ouray NWR. Fish from some sites showed evidence of contaminant exposure as indicated by fish health indicators and reproductive biomarker results. Multiple health indicators including altered body and organ weights and high health assessment index scores may be associated with elevated Se concentrations in fish from the Colorado River at Loma, Colorado and Needles. Although grossly visible external or internal lesions were found on most fish from some sites, histopathological analysis determined many of these to be inflammatory responses associated with parasites. Edema, exophthalmos, and cataracts were noted in fish from sites with elevated Se concentrations. Intersex fish were found at seven of 14 sites and included smallmouth bass (M. dolomieu), largemouth bass (M. salmoides), catfish, and carp and may indicate exposure to endocrine disrupting compounds. A high proportion of smallmouth bass from the Yampa River at Lay (70%) was intersex but the cause of this condition is unknown. Male carp, bass, and catfish with low concentrations of vitellogenin were common in the CRB. Comparatively high vitellogenin concentrations (> 0.2 mg/mL) were measured in male bass from the Green River at Ouray NWR and the Colorado River at Imperial Dam and indicate exposure to estrogenic or anti-androgenic chemicals. Anomalous reproductive biomarkers including low GSI and gonadal abnormalities (calcifications, edema, and parasites) observed in fish downstream of Phoenix are likely related to the poor water-quality of the Gila River in this area.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)376-402
Number of pages27
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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