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Prescription Medications Found in Florida's Bonefish

Pharmaceuticals entering our waters is a problem that needs more research.

Prescription Medications Found in Florida's Bonefish

Up to 17 different pharmaceutical drugs were found in a single bonefish, during a recent study. (Photo courtesy of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust)

A recent study by the non-profit Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and Florida International University showed that south Florida’s bonefish, crabs, shrimp, and other flats prey-fish species are contaminated with up to 24 different pharmaceutical medications that entered the water through under-treated human wastewater. It currently unknown whether other species like redfish, snook, and sea trout have also been impacted.

According to a press release, every one of the 93 bonefish sampled had some pharmaceuticals in their blood and other tissues, from Biscayne Bay to the Upper Keys, the Lower Keys, and west of Key West. On average, bonefish contained seven different medications ranging from blood pressure medicines to antidepressants to antibiotics, pain relievers, and opioids. The effects of these drugs are largely unknown, but researchers have said that they likely affect the fish’s feeding activity, sociability, and migratory behavior. Larger fish specimens were found to be affected to a higher degree.

“These findings are truly alarming,” said lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Rehage. “Pharmaceuticals are an invisible threat, unlike algal blooms or turbid waters. Yet these results tell us that they are a formidable threat to our fisheries, and highlight the pressing need to address our longstanding wastewater infrastructure issues.”

Prescription Medications Found in Florida's Bonefish
The full extent of the problem is largely unknown, but conservationists agree that more research needs to be done. (Photo courtesy of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust)

The source of the pollutants in Florida is believed to be human wastewater that is not sufficiently treated so as to remove the pharmaceutical contaminants before returning it to the environment. Beyond the drugs themselves, the “cocktails” or unsafe combinations of these medications could have further negative impacts on the fish.

“These troubling findings underscore the urgent need for Florida to expand and modernize wastewater treatment facilities and sewage infrastructure statewide,” said Jim McDuffie, BTT President and CEO. “Governor DeSantis’s leadership and historic funding for water quality improvements, along with legislative support and funding, have set us on the right path. Now we must expedite those efforts, increase investment over the long term, and pursue innovative solutions. We must accelerate septic to sewer conversion, and in those places where sewage is not available, require the use of advanced septic technology.”

Florida’s recreational saltwater fishery accounts for over $9 billion annually into the state’s economy and supports almost 100,000 jobs. Bonefishing in the Florida Keys alone reportedly accounts for over $465 million annually. This, along with other environmental issues affecting Florida’s fishing like mangrove depletion and suffocating algae blooms, threatens the future of sportfishing in the state.

Florida’s Clean Waterways Act, which directly addresses improving sewage treatment and stormwater and agricultural runoff, passed the state’s legislature in 2019 with bipartisan support. Many conservationists believe that more needs to be done, however.

This problem is not isolated to Florida. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology revealed that drugs like meth, speed, and birth control medications have gotten into streams of the Chesapeake Bay drainage around Baltimore. A 2021 study by researchers from the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague found that brown trout can and do become addicted to meth that drains into their watersheds.

Most agree that more research is needed to fully understand the impacts and breadth of this issue.

“The health of our citizens and the coastal resources that support Florida’s economy depend on it,” McDuffie said.

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