Bald eagles endangered again by high Catskill mercury levels

By Jay Braman Jr.
The Catskills region has some of the worst mercury contamination in the nation, in large part due to smokestack industries located in the Midwest. The naturally occurring element is transformed into the highly toxic methylmercury by a number of environmental factors prevalent in the region.
The federal government, as well as the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), say that mercury poses no threat to drinking water supplies, but the state Department of Health (DOH) has placed consumption restrictions on fish found in 63 water bodies due to mercury contamination including DEP’s Ashokan and Roundout reservoirs in Ulster and Sullivan counties and its Schoharie reservoir in Schoharie County. North and South lakes in Greene County are on the list as well.
Now a Maine-based environmental organization has found an alarming accumulation of mercury in the blood and feathers of both juvenile and adult bald eagles in the Catskills. BioDiversity Research Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Gorham, Maine, has released a report that claims eagle chicks in the Catskill Park exhibited the highest blood mercury levels among eagles statewide.
The study has found mercury levels in Catskills eagles to be close to those associated with neurological and reproductive problems in the common loon in the Adirondack Mountains and in Maine. Past
studies have shown that high mercury concentrations in loons has led to disorders that have made it difficult for the birds to feed, reproduce and sit in their nests. The new study reveals that one-third of the adult eagles in the Catskills region were found to have accumulated mercury in their bodies at levels associated with harmful effects in the common loon.
The new study also seems to support the belief that the Catskills are a methylmercury hotspot.
The institute, along with The Nature Conservancy and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, conducted a five-year study of juvenile and adult eagles across the state to determine the risk to bald eagles from methylmercury, a highly toxic element that can damage the central nervous system and cause birth defects, neurological problems and developmental delays.
Chris DeSorbo, the lead investigator of the study and director of the BioDiversity Institute’s raptor program, said that, bald eagles, on the verge of extinction in the early 1900s, are particularly at risk from mercury because they have a long life span and feed primarily on fish.
IN 1975, the state DEC started an eagle restoration program. By January 2008, 573 bald eagles were tallied statewide, up from the 324 counted a year earlier.