CORVALLIS, Ore. — Copper deposited on roads by the wearing of brake pads is transported in runoff to streams and rivers, where it may play a key role in increasing predation of threatened and endangered salmon throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

According to a study released this week in Environmental Science and Technology, levels of copper as low as 2 parts per billion have a direct impact on the sensory systems of juvenile coho salmon.

The skin of juvenile salmon is equipped with a special kind of warning system, said Nat Scholz, a researcher at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries Service. When a salmon is attacked by a predator, a chemical cue is released from the skin that signals danger to nearby fish. These fish smell the predation cue and take behavioral measures to avoid being eaten.

Oregon State University researchers working with scientists from NOAA Fisheries, found that fish exposed to low, environmentally realistic levels of copper had an impaired sense of smell and were less responsive to the chemical alarm signal. At elevated concentrations of copper, these predator avoidance behaviors were largely abolished.

Copper naturally occurs in aquatic environments at trace amounts as a background element. However, fluctuations due to run-off from storm events can increase the level of copper in the water from close to zero to more than 60 parts per billion in some instances, said Jason Sandahl, who co-authored the study while working as an OSU doctoral research assistant at the NOAA research laboratory.

“There is a fine line between active copper uptake and copper toxicity,” said Sandahl. “We see problems when copper is pulsed into the water, temporarily elevating the copper higher than the natural background level. The olfactory, or scent, neurons are not able to maintain the normal regulation of copper, and the neurons are either disrupted or killed.”

Salmon are known to avoid environmental gradients of copper, such as those created by point-source discharges. However, copper in stormwater is a diffuse form of non-point source pollution, and it is unlikely that juvenile fish could reduce their exposure through avoidance behaviors, said the researchers.

As a result of automobile braking and exhaust, higher levels of copper contamination have been observed in streams close to roads and highways. Building materials and certain pesticide formulations are also important sources of copper in western landscapes, said Scholz.

Recent monitoring of northern California streams following storm events found dissolved copper levels averaging 15.8 parts per billion per liter of water. Salmon exposed to copper at concentrations well below this average showed significant impairment to both their sensory physiology and predator avoidance behavior, said Sandahl, whose work on the study was funded in part by a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant to OSU. The work was also supported by NOAA’s national Coastal Storms Program.

Since the duration of storm events that cause elevated levels of copper in streams can be relatively short, investigators exposed juvenile coho salmon to copper for only a few hours. In earlier studies they found the onset of copper neurotoxicity to salmon olfactory systems occurs within a matter of minutes. Loss of sensory function is likely reversible, but may take hours or days of the fish being in clean water, said the researchers. If copper exposures are high enough to cause the death of olfactory sensory neurons, it will take several weeks to months for the fish to regenerate new neurons and recover.

The levels of copper contaminant used in the study were at or below current federal regulatory guidelines for heavy metals, said Jeff Jenkins, an environmental toxicologist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“It’s just like they were poisoned,” said Jenkins. “Of all the chemicals we have looked at, this effect was clearly happening at levels well below the current copper standards for water quality. It raises the question of whether the current standards are as protective as we thought.”

The current study is an example of how contaminants can disrupt the chemical ecology of aquatic organisms. In the case of salmon, a sublethal loss of sensory function may increase predation mortality in urbanizing watersheds. The influence of copper on predator-prey interactions is the focus of ongoing research, with the eventual aim of linking individual survival to the productivity of wild salmon populations, said Scholz.

Though the study was conducted on juvenile salmon, the results are applicable to fish species in urban watersheds worldwide, said the researchers. Dissolved copper has been shown to affect the olfactory systems of chinook salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, fathead minnow, Colorado pikeminnow and tilapia.

Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.


Jeffrey Jenkins,