For decades, there have been mysterious deaths of Coho salmon. The salmon return from the Pacific Ocean each year to spawn along the West Coast. They can be found from Alaska all the way down into California. After heavy rain events each fall, fish have been turning up dead in huge numbers before they spawn. Normally, less than 1% of adult Coho die before spawning. In these mass death events, anywhere from 40% to 90% of fish can perish in affected streams. The mysterious phenomenon has been the subject of intense research for years.
Recently, scientists announced that they may have solved the mystery. There is a chemical antioxidant known as 6PPD that is used in the manufacture of tires around the world to make them last longer. As tire treads break down over time, they leave behind bits of microplastics on roads. The 6PPD in the plastic bits reacts with ozone to become another chemical: a previously unreported substance called 6PPD-quinone.
That chemical turns out to be toxic to Coho salmon. Researchers have found the presence of 6PPD-quinone in roadway water runoff samples taken from across the West Coast. Based on these observations, they believe it is likely that exposure to this chemical is the main cause of the Coho salmon population decline.
Coho salmon are a favorite of sport fishermen and have great cultural significance to many Native American tribes on the West Coast. The central California Coho population is classified as endangered and three other Coho populations are listed as threatened.
Tire industry representatives call the study results “preliminary” but say the industry is deeply committed to protecting the environment. A safe chemical substitute for 6PPD is clearly needed.
Salmon have been dying mysteriously on the West Coast for years. Scientists think a chemical in tires may be responsible
Photo, posted November 17, 2011, courtesy of Lynn Ketchum/Oregon State University via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
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