Hydrothermal mercury: the natural history of a contaminant

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Our colleague Hélène Planquette participated in an international study coordinated by the CNRS aiming to estimate the contribution of hydrothermal sources to the mercury stock present in the oceans.

This study has just been published in the journal Nature Geoscience and is the subject of a CNRS press release:

An international team of researchers, coordinated by the CNRS (see inset), has established the first global estimate of hydrothermal mercury (Hg) emissions from mid-ocean ridges. The UN Minamata Convention on Mercury aims to reduce human exposure to toxic mercury by reducing anthropogenic emissions. We are primarily exposed through the consumption of fish that bioaccumulate Hg from the ocean. The current paradigm is that anthropogenic mercury emissions (currently 3,100 tons per year) are responsible for a 21% increase in the global oceanic mercury reservoir. This estimate is inaccurate because we do not know how much natural mercury was present in the ocean before the start of anthropogenic emissions.

We are also unable to quantify the impact of anthropogenic emissions on Hg levels in fish. Hydrothermalism is the only direct source of natural Hg to the ocean. Previous studies, based solely on hydrothermal fluid measurements, suggested that hydrothermal Hg inputs could range from 20 to 2,000 tons per year. This new study used measurements of hydrothermal plumes, seawater, and rock cores in addition to fluid measurements from the Trans-Atlantic Geotraverse (TAG) hydrothermal source on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

The combination of observations suggests that the majority of enriched Hg in the fluids would be diluted in seawater, and a small fraction would precipitate locally. Extrapolation of the results indicates that the overall hydrothermal Hg flux from mid-ocean ridges is low (1.5 to 65 tons per year) compared to anthropogenic Hg emissions. Although this suggests that the majority of Hg in the ocean is of anthropogenic origin, it also raises hope that strict implementation of emission reductions under the Minamata Convention will reduce mercury levels in fish and human exposure.


Article Reference:

Torres-Rodriguez, N., Yuan, J., Petersen, S. et al. Mercury fluxes from hydrothermal venting at mid-ocean ridges constrained by measurements. Nat. Geosci. (2023).

The ocean may be storing more carbon than estimated in previous studies

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Our colleague Frédéric Le Moigne contributed to an international study on the efficiency of the oceanic carbon pump. The study, published this week in Nature magazine, reassesses the ocean’s capacity to store carbon, particularly through ‘marine snow’. The CNRS issued a press release about this publication :

The ocean’s capacity to store atmospheric carbon dioxide is almost 20% higher than the estimates presented in the latest IPCC report. These are the findings of a study published in the journal Nature on 6 December 2023 by an international team including a biologist from the CNRS. The scientists looked at the role played by plankton in the natural transport of carbon from the surface to the seabed.

Plankton is fond of this gas, which it transforms into organic tissue through photosynthesis during its development, and some of it is transformed into marine particles at the end of its life. Denser than seawater, this ‘marine snow’ sinks to the seabed, storing carbon and providing essential nutrients for many deep-sea creatures, from tiny bacteria to deep-sea fish.

Based on the study of a database collected from around the world since the 1970s using oceanographic vessels, the team of seven scientists were able to digitally map the fluxes of organic matter throughout the oceans. The resulting new estimate of storage capacity is 15 gigatonnes per year, an increase of around 20% on the previous studies (11 gigatonnes per year) reported by the IPCC in its 2021 report.

This reassessment of the seabed’s storage capacity represents a significant advance in our understanding of carbon exchanges between the atmosphere and the ocean at a global level. While the team stresses that this absorption process takes place over tens of thousands of years, and is therefore not sufficient to offset the exponential increase in CO2 emissions generated by global industrial activity since 1750, this study nevertheless reinforces the importance of the ocean ecosystem as a major player in regulating the global climate in the long term.

Global distribution of organic carbon flux from the surface layer of the open ocean.
© Wang et al., 2023, Nature.



Biological carbon pump estimate based on multi-decadal hydrographic data. Wei-Lei Wang, Weiwei Fu, Frédéric A. C. Le Moigne, Robert T. Letscher, Yi Liu, Jin-Ming Tang, and François W. Primeau. Nature, le 6 décembre 2023.
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06772-4

A critical review on the evaluation of toxicity and ecological risk assessment of plastics in the marine environment


The increasing production of plastics together with the insufficient waste management has led to massive pollution by plastic debris in the marine environment. Contrary to other known pollutants, plastic has the potential to induce three types of toxic effects: physical (e.g intestinal injuries), chemical (e.g leaching of toxic additives) and biological (e.g transfer of pathogenic microorganisms). This critical review questions our capability to give an effective ecological risk assessment, based on an ever-growing number of scientific articles in the last two decades acknowledging toxic effects at all levels of biological integration, from the molecular to the population level. Numerous biases in terms of concentration, size, shape, composition and microbial colonization revealed how toxicity and ecotoxicity tests are still not adapted to this peculiar pollutant. Suggestions to improve the relevance of plastic toxicity studies and standards are disclosed with a view to support future appropriate legislation.


Graphical Abstract


  • Recurrent toxic effects of plastic debris seen from molecular to population levels.
  • Tested conditions (concentration, type, size, shape) lack environmental relevancy.
  • Environmental studies on plastic debris are scarce.
  • Actual toxicity standards are not adapted to plastic.


David Leistenschneider, Adèle Wolinski, Jingguang Cheng, Alexandra ter Halle, Guillaume Duflos, Arnaud Huvet, Ika Paul-Pont, Franck Lartaud, François Galgani, Édouard Lavergne, Anne-Leila Meistertzheim, Jean-François Ghiglione, A critical review on the evaluation of toxicity and ecological risk assessment of plastics in the marine environment, Science of The Total Environment, Vol 896, 2023

Read the paper, published in Open Access

HIPPO environmental monitoring

HIPPO environmental monitoring:

Impact of phytoplankton dynamics on water column chemistry and the sclerochronology of the king scallop (Pecten maximus) as a biogenic archive for past primary production reconstructions



As part of the HIPPO project (HIgh-resolution Primary Production multi-prOxy archives), environmental monitoring was carried out between March and October 2021 in the Bay of Brest. The aim of this survey was to better understand the processes which drive the incorporation of chemical elements into scallop shells and their links with phytoplankton dynamics. For this purpose, biological samples (scallops and phytoplankton) as well as water samples were collected in order to analyze various environmental parameters (element chemical properties, nutrients, chlorophyll a, etc.). Given the large number of parameters that were measured, only the major results are presented and discussed here. However, the whole dataset, which has been made available, is much larger and can potentially be very useful for other scientists performing sclerochronological investigations, studying biogeochemical cycles or conducting various ecological research projects. The dataset is available online.


Figure 10:Average Ba/Ca signals measured in shells of P. maximus that were collected from the sediment surface (blue curve, n=3) and 1 m above the substrate (red curve, n=3). The abundances of Chaetoceros spp. (dark green areas) and L. danicus (light green areas) are also shown.



In this article, only an overview of the results gathered during the HIPPO monitoring conducted at Lanvéoc during 2021 is presented. The dataset helps in better understanding the links between phytoplankton dynamics, water column chemistry and the incorporation of trace elements into the shells of P. maximus. However, the dataset also contains information useful for other topics of interest. Tables 1 and 2 compile all variables that have been made available for other scientists on the SEANOE platform (https://doi.org/10.17882/92043 – Siebert et al., 2023). Moreover, the hypotheses and assumptions given in this paper, as well as other topics that have not been mentioned, will be the focus of several articles that are currently in preparation.



Siebert, V., Moriceau, B., Fröhlich, L., Schöne, B. R., Amice, E., Beker, B., Bihannic, K., Bihannic, I., Delebecq, G., Devesa, J., Gallinari, M., Germain, Y., Grossteffan, É., Jochum, K. P., Le Bec, T., Le Goff, M., Liorzou, C., Leynaert, A., Marec, C., Picheral, M., Rimmelin-Maury, P., Rouget, M.-L., Waeles, M., and Thébault, J.: HIPPO environmental monitoring: impact of phytoplankton dynamics on water column chemistry and the sclerochronology of the king scallop (Pecten maximus) as a biogenic archive for past primary production reconstructions, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 15, 3263–3281, https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-15-3263-2023, 2023.

Mercury isotope clocks predict coastal residency and migration timing of hammerhead sharks

Abstract and highlights

  1. The management of migratory taxa relies on the knowledge of their movements. Among them, ontogenetic habitat shift, from nurseries to adult habitats, is a behavioural trait shared across marine taxa allowing resource partitioning between life stages and reducing predation risk. As this movement is consistent over time, characterizing its timing is critical to implement efficient management plans, notably in coastal areas to mitigate the impact of fisheries on juvenile stocks.
  2. In the Mexican Pacific, habitat use of the smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zygaena) is poorly described, while the species is heavily harvested. Given the large uncertainties associated with the timing of out-migration from coastal nursery grounds to offshore waters prior to reproductive maturity, a more precise assessment of smooth hammerhead shark movements is needed.
  3. Photochemical degradation of mercury imparts mass-independent isotope fractionation (Δ199Hg) which can be used to discriminate between neonate coastal shallow habitats and the offshore deep foraging patterns of late juveniles. Here, we present the application of muscle Δ199Hg as molecular clocks to predict the timing of ontogenetic habitat shifts by smooth hammerhead sharks, based on their isotopic compositions at the initial and arrival habitats and on muscle isotopic turnover rate.
  4. We observed decreases in Δ199Hg values with shark body length, reflecting increasing reliance on offshore mesopelagic prey with age. Coastal residency estimates indicated that smooth hammerhead sharks utilize coastal resources for 2 years prior to offshore migration, suggesting a prolonged residency in these ecosystems.
  5. Policy implications. This study demonstrates how mercury stable isotopes and isotopic clocks can be implemented as a complementary tool for stock management by predicting the timing of animal migration—a key aspect in the conservation of marine taxa. In the Mexican Pacific, fishing pressure on shark species occurs in coastal habitats depleting juvenile stocks. Consequently, management decision support tools are imperative for effectively maintaining early life stage population levels over time. The finding that smooth hammerhead sharks extensively rely on highly fished habitats for 2 years after parturition supports the relevance of establishing a size limit in coastal fisheries and demonstrates how the current temporal shark fishing closure could lack efficiency for the species.

Graphical abstract.



Besnard, L., Lucca, B. M., Shipley, O. N., Le Croizier, G., Martínez-Rincón, R. O., Sonke, J. E., Point, D., Galván-Magaña, F., Kraffe, E., Kwon, S. Y., & Schaal, G. (2023). Mercury isotope clocks predict coastal residency and migration timing of hammerhead sharks. Journal of Applied Ecology, 60, 803–813. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.1438