Two-Headed Trout: Are Mining Byproducts to Blame?

Environmental groups are concerned that selenium runoff from Idaho phosphate mines are causing major fish mutations.

Idaho's mutant, two-headed brown trout.
Idaho is the largest American producer of farmed trout, but you don't want these fish on your plate. (Images from the appendix of a report by the J. R. Simplot Company)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Should a mining company whose pollutants are causing shocking mutations in native fish be allowed to keep polluting? According to the EPA, the answer is yes.

Buried deep in J.R. Simplot Company’s self-commissioned scientific report were startling photos of mutant, two-headed brown trout. The mining company used the report to petition the EPA to allow higher levels of selenium into creeks and streams near its phosphate mining operation in southern Idaho. Selenium is a mining byproduct known to be toxic to wildlife, particularly egg-laying animals like fish, birds and reptiles. And at first, it appeared the EPA seemed agreeable to the proposal.

But according to The New York Times, word of the two-headed trout spread, prompting some federal scientists and environmentalists to press for further scientific review; and California Senator Barbara Boxer, head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, to call in the Fish and Wildlife Service to scrutinize the company’s report.

Their findings?

“The service’s review, released last month, was scathing, describing the study as ‘biased’ and ‘highly questionable.’ Joseph Skorupa, the service’s selenium expert, cited a ‘lack of valid field controls’ and the absence of any analysis of the selenium’s impact on reptiles, birds or 12 other types of fish in the creeks’ waters. Most troubling, he wrote, was the researchers systematically undermeasured the rate of serious deformities in baby fish, which were pictured only in the appendix,” writes Leslie Kaufman in The New York Times.

Just how news of mutations in wild trout will reverberate among Idaho’s large trout farming operations is unclear. Idaho raises more than 70 percent of the farmed trout in the country.

Randy MacMillan, spokesman for the National Aquaculture Association and vice president for research and environmental affairs for Clear Springs Food, says Idaho’s trout producers are unique in that they predominantly use ground water from the state’s giant Snake River Plain Aquifer.

“But for other trout farmers who grow their fish in river or pond water, they do need to be careful toxins aren’t in the water. Rainbow trout are especially sensitive, and are used in research to test for toxins,” he says.

J.R. Simplot isn’t the only high-profile mining operation to become entangled over wild fish. In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, environmentalists are trying to prevent the proposed Pebble Mine from going forward. They are concerned that development of the massive mining operation will destroy the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Earlier this month, an executive with Pebble Limited Partnership said they’re working to move closer to the permitting process this year.

It's too late for those two-headed trout, but maybe the salmon can be still be saved.

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