Estuarine fish health assessment: evidence of wastewater impacts based on nitrogen isotopes and histopathology
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Sewage effluent is a powerful agent of ecological change in estuaries. While the effects of sewage pollution on water quality are usually well documented, biological responses of exposed organisms are not. We quantified health impacts in the form of pathological tissue changes across multiple organs in estuarine fish exposed to elevated levels of treated wastewater. Structural pathologies were compared in wild populations of four fish species from two subtropical estuaries on the east coast of Australia that differ substantially in the amount of direct wastewater loadings. Uptake of sewage-derived nitrogen by fish was traced with stable nitrogen isotopes. Pathologies were common in the liver, spleen, gill, kidney and muscle tissues, and included granulomas, melanomacrophage aggregates, and multiple deformities of the gill epithelia. Tissue deformities were more frequent in fish exposed directly to wastewater discharges. Mullet (Valamugil georgii) were most affected, with only a single specimen free of pathologies in the sewage-impacted estuary. Similarly, in those fish that had structural abnormalities, more deformities were generally found in individuals from sites receiving sewage. These spatial contrasts in impaired fish health correspond to significantly enriched d15N values in fish muscle as a consequence of fish assimilating sewage-N. Overall, the pattern of lower health and enriched d15N values in fish from sewage-impacted areas suggests that organism health is lowered by sewage inputs to estuaries. Measurements of organism health are required to understand the effects of sewage on estuarine ecosystems, and histopathology of fishes is a powerful tool to achieve this.
Marine Pollution Bulletin