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Growth of estuarine fish is associated with the combined concentration of sediment contaminants and shows no adaptation or acclimation to past conditions.


We tested whether the growth rates of small benthic fish (Gillichthys mirabilis) in three southern California estuaries corresponded with the local concentrations of contaminants. Fish originating from each estuary were transplanted to cages in each estuary in two reciprocal transplant experiments. The growth rates of caged fish, and the size-distribution of natural populations, showed the same pattern of difference among estuaries. Twelve metals and organic contaminants occurred in bulk sediments at concentrations close to their individual ERL values, and a simple index of their combined concentration (the mean ERL quotient) was inversely correlated to the growth of caged fish. Metals in the water column occurred at lower concentrations, relative to toxicity thresholds, than those in sediments and were unrelated to fish growth. Fish used in the field caging experiments, and other fish held in the laboratory under constant conditions, showed no difference in growth according to their estuary of origin. Fish originating from different estuaries also showed no consistent differences in their tissue burden of organic contaminants. Our results thus suggested no genetic adaptation or physiological acclimation to the past contaminant regime, but revealed a possible association between fish growth rates and the combined concentration of multiple sediment contaminants.