There are three major questions often asked when considering the environmental health of a body of water. Can you drink the water? Can you swim in it? And… can you eat the fish? Often the answer to the last question is very complicated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the first report in a two-part series on the fish that ends up on your table:
There are three major questions often asked when considering the
environmental health of a body of water. Can you drink the water? Can you
swim in it? And… can you eat the fish? Often the answer to the last
question is very complicated. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham has the first report in a two-part series on the fish that ends up on
Mark Ford goes fishing almost every weekday. This day, he’s at a small
marina off of Lake Michigan. He’s carrying several rods and reels and a
couple of tackle boxes with him to an old dock…
Lester Graham: “Now, what do you fish for?”
Mark Ford: “Right now, whatever bites on the hook. Basically, I fish for bass,
This day, he’s just testing some new gear…
“Set my drag. Too loose.”
When Ford got his fishing license, he also got a guide telling him that the fish
he eats is contaminated. All inland lakes have some level of contamination
which could include pesticides, PCBs, and mercury.
Ford has a pretty good idea about what to do to reduce his exposure to the contaminants when he eats the fish..
“Yeah, first thing you want to do is cut off all excess fat to get away from a lot of the chemical
pollutants that’s not in the actual meat of the fish. That’s where most of the chemicals lie, in the fat. So, you cut that off and get to cookin’.”
Ford’s preparation is a good start. Trimming the fat will reduce exposure to PCBs and
similar compounds that are stored in fatty tissue. And just cooking the fish reduces some of the exposure to contaminants. But if a contaminant such as methyl mercury is present in the flesh of the fish, no amount of rinsing, boiling or frying will change that.
Unfortunately, many anglers are not as well informed as Mark Ford. A study in Canada
found a lot fishers don’t understand the contaminants or what to do about them. They judge
whether the fish is safe to eat by how well it fights on the line… by the color of the
flesh… or by the clearness of the eye. None of those things is an indicator of whether a fish is contaminated by toxic chemicals.
Alan Hayton is with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. He says how much fish are
contaminated depends on the body of water. A ban on PCBs in manufacturing
has helped, although there are still decades worth of the pollutant in some lake
sediments. Agricultural pesticide restrictions and bans have helped reduce
contaminants in some other lakes.
“Well, if you want – are fish getting better or worse? Certainly over the years,
when you look at the Great Lakes, there’s been a considerable decline in the level of
contaminants in fish. Many of the inland lakes, both in Ontario and elsewhere – not
just around the Great Lakes, but elsewhere – there’s mercury in those fish. Mercury
concentrations don’t appear to be changing. They seem to be quite stable.
So, we find that in quite a high proportion of the inland lakes there are some consumption
Mercury remains a problem because as coal-fired power plants release mercury
into the air… it’s brought down into watersheds by rain. There the problem is
complicated in some areas by any number of factors, including some bacteria that transform
simple mercury into the more toxic methyl mercury.
So, some bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, have lower levels of some
pollutants, but some other contaminants are just as bad as ever. To complicate things
even more, some fish are more contaminated than others.
Faith Shottenfeld is with the New York State Department of Health.
“You know, it’s complicated because it’s going to vary from state to state, from body of
water to body of water and from fish species to fish species.”
Shottenfeld says that makes getting the message to anglers all the more difficult.
States are trying to figure out how to get the information to the people who eat
the fish, but there are very few general guidelines.
“So, I think that the best way to work your way through the complexities
is to really have a dialogue with somebody who understands the advisories and can
help you figure out what you need to do.”
But generally speaking, eating smaller fish, and limiting sport fish meals from local lakes to about once a week for men and once a month for women helps.
Angler Mark Ford says he’s not worried. He says to him, the health benefits of
fish offset the health risks of the contaminants.
“A month, I’d say I eat about twelve to 15 pounds of fish. I eat a lot of fish.
I like fish. Fish is healthy for you, too. It’s low in cholesterol if you cut the fat away from
it. It’s good brain food. That’s scientifically proven. And, if you prepare it
right, it tastes good!”
And Ford says he’s healthy. But experts indicate it’s hard to say what long-term
exposure to the contaminants in sport fish from area lakes will mean to human
health. They caution that children and women of child-bearing age should severely
restrict their intake of sport fish because the contaminants can damage the
development of fetuses and children.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.