Gender symbols side by side Intersex fish more common than anticipated A recent study on intersex abnormalities in fish living in the Potomac River watershed carried out by researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey showed that at least 82 percent of male smallmouth bass and in 23 percent of the largemouth bass had immature female germ cells (oocytes) in their reproductive organs. This number is even larger than anticipated.

This type of intersex indicates that the fish has been exposed to estrogens or chemicals that mimic the activity of natural hormones. The condition is believed to be caused by hormone-like chemicals, so called endocrine disruptors, found in medicines and a variety of consumer products. Earlier, researchers suspected that the contaminants were entering the Potomac from the wastewater treatment plants that discharge into it, but further sampling showed that the problem existed in areas located upstream from sewage plants as well. Officials are now investigating if multiple chemicals, and not just those from sewage plants, may be responsible. A larger study that includes the entire Potomac River and other East Coast rivers will be launched to find out how widespread the problem actually is.

At the moment we don’t know the ecological implications of this condition and it could potentially affect the reproductive capability of important sport fish species in the watershed,” said Leopoldo Miranda, Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

The Potomac River is the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast of the USA (in terms of area), with a length of approximately 665 km (383 statute miles) and a drainage area of roughly 38,000 km² (14,700 square miles). It flows into the Chesapeake Bay along the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. The river is shared by West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and District of Columbia, and all of Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital city, lies within the Potomac watershed.

More information is available in the Intersex fact sheet released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office.