Investigators on Project 4 partner with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to sample lake fish for arsenic

Two researchers in waders push a boat away from a lake shore. On the boat are two other researchers and some equipment. One of the researchers wears a red jacket and peers over the edge of the boat.

Biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lent their equipment and expertise to help Dr. Jim Gawel and his team catch fish to sample for arsenic. 

When you find that some lake fish have levels of arsenic high enough to pose a hazard to human health you wonder about the arsenic in other fish.

In August of 2021, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) worked with Dr. Jim Gawel, an investigator on UW SRP's Project 4, to investigate just that. On August 23rd and 24th they visited Lake Killarney and Steel Lake, two of Dr. Gawel's study sites, to sample fish during night-time electroshocking, a standard WDFW protocol. While Dr. Gawel's team had previously sampled bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish from these lakes for total arsenic and arsenic species concentrations, other species of fish had not been tested, and no species had yet been measured at the height of arsenic concentrations in the oxygenated water column in late summer.

Along with Dr. Rebecca Neumann, Dr. Gawel has been leading a study to examine the cycling and bioavailability of arsenic in lakes in the South Puget Sound region that were contaminated by the former ASARCO smelter, and are part of the Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats Superfund site. Late last year, their team presented preliminary results to agency stakeholders showing that levels of inorganic arsenic in snails, crayfish, and sunfish in their shallow study lakes were high enough to pose a hazard to human health.

Before publishing, Gawel and Neumann’s research team committed to communicating these results to the lake homeowners who had been engaged with the project since its beginning. They also knew that it was important to consult with local agency stakeholders prior to communicating with the public, both because they wanted to keep their agency partners apprised of results and also because they wanted to collaborate in the development of risk communication messages.

It was at this agency meeting that staff from the WDFW became interested in Dr. Gawel's team’s idea to sample other species of fish from the contaminated lakes. The research team expected that feeding behavior and trophic level for the various fish species found in these lakes – including sunfish, large- and smallmouth bass, rock bass, yellow perch, brown bullhead, and crappie – would impact human health risk. This might suggest a need for species-specific consumption advisories for subsistence fishers by the Washington Department of Health, another agency stakeholder partner. The partnership with WDFW allowed for efficient sampling of multiple species by trained field biologists, and the research team will share the results of their analysis as soon as they are ready. Arsenic analysis of fish filets is currently being conducted at UW Tacoma, and results are expected by late autumn.