Mercury (Hg) poses a health risk to wildlife populations and has been documented at relatively high concentrations in many marine mammals, including wild-caught pinnipeds along the central California, US coast. We measured total Hg concentrations ([THg]) in hair and blood of live-stranded harbor seals (HS; Phoca vitulina), California sea lions (CSL; Zalophus californianus), and northern elephant seals (NES; Mirounga angustirostris) in California to quantify species, temporal, and spatial variability in [THg] and assess the relationships between [THg] measured by different methods (blood vs. filter paper) and in different matrices (blood vs. hair). We compared [THg] with toxicologic thresholds of concern to aid in identification of at-risk individuals or groups and better understand how the use of different methods and matrices affects assumed toxicologic risk. There was a wide range of [THg] in blood (<0.01–1.13 µg/g) and hair (0.45–81.98 µg/g), and NES had higher [THg] compared with HS and CSL. All three species had individuals with [THg] that exceeded the lower threshold for one or both matrices, but only HS pups had [THg] exceeding upper thresholds. Spatial differences in [THg] were detected, with higher concentrations in HS pups from areas surrounding San Francisco Bay, but differences were dependent on sampling year and matrix. The relationship between [THg] in blood and filter paper (r2=0.98) was strong, and differences had little influence on comparisons with toxicologic thresholds. Blood and hair [THg] were generally in agreement (r2=0.72), but large mismatches for a few seals underscore the importance of combined sampling in adverse effects studies where accurate assessment of Hg exposure is crucial. The wide range of [THg] in stranded HS pups that exceeded published thresholds of concern makes them a promising candidate for adverse effects studies, particularly because different matrices represent Hg exposure across key developmental stages.
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Vol. 55 • No. 4