Women's medicines might be affecting fish in U.S. waterways
WASHINGTON - Some male fish in parts of the Pee Dee are developing female characteristics, possibly because they're being exposed to birth control pills and hormone treatments that are seeping into U.S. waterways.
While the problem has been found in other parts of the country, the Southeast - especially the Pee Dee River basin in North and South Carolina - had the highest rates of male fish with female characteristics, federal researchers have found.
It was not clear why, but in Bucksport, a small community near Conway, 10 of 11 largemouth bass examined were considered intersex, research has found.
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The findings come from the U.S. Geological Survey in its first comprehensive examination of intersex fish in America. Sporadic discoveries of feminized fish have been reported for a few years.
Male fish with female characteristics can have more difficulty reproducing.
The geological survey looked at past data from nine river basins - covering about two-thirds of the country - and found that about 6 percent of the nearly 1,500 male fish had a bit of female in them. The study looked at 16 different species, with most not affected.
But the fish most feminized are two of the most sought-after freshwater sport fish - the largemouth and smallmouth, which are part of the black bass family. Those two species were also the most examined, with nearly 500 black bass tallied.
"It's widespread," said USGS biologist Jo Ellen Hinck. She is the lead author of the study, published online this month in Aquatic Toxicology. She said 44 percent of the sites where black bass were tested had at least one male with egg cells growing inside.
Past studies have linked the problem to endocrine-disrupting hormones, such as estrogen from women's medicines. While the fish can still reproduce, studies have shown they don't reproduce as well, Hinck said.
Intersex fish are also seen as a general warning about what some experts see as a wider problem of endocrine disruptors in the environment. The egg cells growing in the male fish's gonads can only be seen with a microscope after the fish has been caught and dissected.
The study used data from 1995 to 2004, when the government stopped funding the research. The only river basin examined that didn't show any problems was Alaska's Yukon River Basin.
In parts of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and the Yampa River in Colorado, 70 percent of the smallmouth bass had female signs.
Hinck said black bass seem to be more prone to the problem, but researchers don't know why. She also found one common carp that was female with bits of male testes growing inside.