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Ammonia in estuaries and effects on fish

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This review aims to explore the biological responses of fish in estuaries to increased levels of environmental ammonia. Results from laboratory and field studies on responses of fish to varying salinity and their responses increased ammonia will be evaluated, although studies which examine responses to ammonia, in relation to varying salinity, pH and temperature together are rare. In a survey of British estuaries the continuous measurement of total ammonia showed values that ranged from background levels increasing up to c. 10 mg N l−1 although higher values have been noted sporadically. In outer estuaries pH values tended to stabilize towards sea water values (e.g. c. pH 8). Upper reaches of estuaries are influenced by the quality of their fresh waters sources which can show a wide range of pH and water quality values depending on geological, climatic and pollution conditions. In general the ammonia toxicity (96 h LC50) to marine species (e.g. 0·09–3·35 mg l−1 NH3) appears to be roughly similar to freshwater species (e.g. 0·068–2·0 mg l−1 NH3). Ammonia toxicity is related to differences between species and pH rather than to the comparatively minor influences of salinity and temperature. In the marine environment the toxicity of ionized ammonia should be considered. The water quality standard for freshwater salmonids of 21 μg l−1 NH3–N was considered to be protective for most marine fish and estuarine fish although the influence of cyclical changes in pH, salinity and temperature were not considered. During ammonia exposures, whether chronic or episodic, estuarine fish may be most at risk as larvae or juveniles, at elevated temperatures, if salinity is near the seawater value and if the pH value of the water is decreased. They are also likely to be at risk from ammonia intoxication in waters of low salinity, high pH and high ammonia levels. These conditions are likely to promote ammonia transfer from the environment into the fish, both as ionized and unionized ammonia, as well as promoting ammonia retention by the fish. Fish are more likely to be prone to ammonia toxicity if they are not feeding, are stressed and if they are active and swimming. Episodic or cycling exposures should also be considered in relation to the rate at which the animal is able to accumulate and excrete ammonia and the physiological processes involved in the transfer of ammonia.

In the complex environment of an estuary, evaluation of ammonia as a pollutant will involve field and laboratory experiments to determine the responses of fish to ammonia as salinity and temperature vary over a period of time. It will also be necessary to evaluate the responses of a variety of species including estuarine residents and migrants.
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Keywords: Ammonia; estuaries; migratory fish; toxicity

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Environmental and Applied Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Dundee, Dundee DD1 4HN, U.K.

Publication date: 01 December 2005

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