Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 176–190 | Cite as

Use of a food web model to evaluate the factors responsible for high PCB fish concentrations in Lake Ellasjøen, a high Arctic Lake

  • Sarah B. Gewurtz
  • Nilima Gandhi
  • Guttorm N. Christensen
  • Anita Evenset
  • Dennis Gregor
  • Miriam L. Diamond


Background, aim, and scope

Lake Ellasjøen, located in the Norwegian high arctic, contains the highest concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) ever recorded in fish and sediment from high arctic lakes, and concentrations are more than 10 times greater than in nearby Lake Øyangen. These elevated concentrations in Ellasjøen have been previously attributed, in part, to contaminant loadings from seabirds that use Ellasjøen, but not Øyangen, as a resting area. However, other factors, such as food web structure, organism growth rate, weight, lipid content, lake morphology, and nutrient inputs from the seabird guano, also differ between the two systems. The aim of this study is to evaluate the relative influence of these factors as explanatory variables for the higher PCB fish concentrations in Ellasjøen compared with Øyangen, using both a food web model and empirical data.


The model is based on previously developed models but parameterized for Lakes Ellasjøen and Øyangen using measured data wherever possible. The model was applied to five representative PCB congeners (PCB 105, 118, 138, 153, and 180) using measured sediment and water concentrations as input data and evaluated with previously collected food web data.


Modeled concentrations are within a factor of two of measured concentrations in 60% and 40% of the cases in Lakes Ellasjøen and Øyangen, respectively, and within a factor of 10 in 100% of the cases in both lakes. In many cases, this is comparable to the variability associated with the data as well as the efficacy of the predictions of other food web model applications.


We next used the model to quantify the relative importance of five major differences between Ellasjøen and Øyangen by replacing variables representing each of these factors in the Ellasjøen model with those from Øyangen, in separate simulations. The model predicts that the elevated PCB concentrations in Ellasjøen water and sediment account for 49%–58% of differences in modeled fish PCB concentrations between lakes. These elevated sediment and, to a lesser extent, water concentrations in Ellasjøen are due to PCB loadings from seabird guano. However, sediment–water fugacity ratios of PCBs are consistently greater in Ellasjøen compared with Øyangen, which suggests that internal lake processes also contribute to differences in sediment and water concentrations. We hypothesize that the nutrients associated with guano influence sediment–water fugacity ratios of PCBs by increasing the stock of pelagic algae. As both these algae and the guano settle, their organic carbon content is degraded faster than PCBs, which causes an extra magnification step in Ellasjøen before these detrital particles are consumed by benthic organisms, which are in turn consumed by fish. The model predicts that the remaining ∼50% of the differences in PCB concentrations observed between the fish of these lakes are due to other subtle differences in their food web structures.


In conclusion, based on the results of a food web model, we found that the most dominant factors influencing the higher PCB fish concentrations in Lake Ellasjøen compared with Øyangen are the higher sediment and water concentrations in Ellasjøen, caused by seabird guano. Together, sediment and water are predicted to account for 49%–58% of differences in fish concentrations between lakes. Although seabird guano provides a source of nutrients to the lake, in addition to contaminants, empirical data and indirect model results suggest that nutrients are not leading to decreased bioaccumulation, in contrast to what has been observed in temperate, pelagic food webs.

Recommendations and perspectives

The results of this study emphasize the importance of considering even small differences in food web structure when comparing bioaccumulation in two lakes; although the food web structures of Ellasjøen and Øyangen differ only slightly, the model predicts that these differences account for most of the remaining ∼50% of the differences in PCB fish concentrations between the two lakes. This study further demonstrates the utility of food web models as we were able to predict and tease apart the influence of various factors responsible for the elevated concentrations in the fish from Lake Ellasjøen, which would have been difficult using the field data alone.


Bear Island Fish Food web model High arctic lake PCBs Seabird guano 



Financial support for this study was provided by NSERC postgraduate scholarships to S. Gewurtz and N. Gandhi, funding from the Northern Contaminants Program of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, a NSERC.CRD grant to M. Diamond, and the Norwegian Research Council, project numbers 135064/720, 153411/720, and 135632/720.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah B. Gewurtz
    • 1
  • Nilima Gandhi
    • 2
  • Guttorm N. Christensen
    • 3
  • Anita Evenset
    • 3
  • Dennis Gregor
    • 4
  • Miriam L. Diamond
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied ChemistryUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Akvaplan-niva, Polar Environmental CentreTromsøNorway
  4. 4.Gartner Lee LimitedMarkhamCanada

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