MADISON, Wis.–Trey Mackey expertly baits his fishing hook with a live worm, sits down on a folding chair and casts a line into the waters of Monona Bay. He’s driven up from Chicago for a day of fishing that could provide a fresh, tasty dinner of blue gill.
But unbeknownst to Mackey, consuming fish from the bay carries a significant health risk.
Every state, including Wisconsin, has issued health advisories for an array of rivers, lakes and bays that warn of the dangers of eating fish tainted with industrial compounds and other chemicals. For Mackey, who is African American, the risk is exacerbated: People of color eat a lot of locally-caught fish for economic and cultural reasons. And yet they are the least likely to be aware of the risks because state efforts to warn anglers fail to reach many minority and low-income populations.
Consumption of contaminated fish “is an especially pressing concern for many communities of color, low-income communities, tribes, and other indigenous peoples, whose members may consume fish, aquatic plants, and wildlife in greater quantities than does the general population,” according to a landmark Environmental Protection Agency study published nearly a decade ago.
Experts and activists call the government efforts to protect people of color from tainted fish woefully inadequate. In a 2012 Cornell University survey of more than 1,700 licensed anglers in the Great Lakes area, 61 percent of whites said they followed fish advisories, while only 50 percent of non-whites said they did.
“We believe that fish consumption is an environmental justice issue that stems from inadequate risk communication through fish consumption advisories,” wrote Michelle Martinez and Alexandria Teague of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment in a 2008 study.
Many freshwater and ocean fish contain dangerous elements such as mercury, industrial chemicals such as dioxins and pesticides such as DDT that are linked to cancer, reproductive effects or other health problems.
Children, pregnant and nursing women and women of child-bearing age are most at risk. Scientific studies suggest that chemicals in fish can alter how the brain and reproductive system of a fetus or child develops, or raise the risk of diseases such as cancer later in life.
Thirty-two states have issued statewide advisories warning anglers about specific fish and waterways, according to the EPA. And every state has issued a local advisory for at least one waterway.
Nationwide, 4,598 fish advisories encompassed 42 percent of all lake acreage and 36 percent of river miles in 2010. And the number is growing. A decade earlier, about 25 percent of lake acreage and less than 10 percent of river miles were under advisories. Eighty-three new ones were issued between 2008 and 2010, the EPA data show.
EPA officials said the growing number of advisories is not indicative of an expanding problem. Instead, states have been testing a growing number of non-commercial fish. “The upward trend in advisories does not mean that contaminant levels in fish are increasing nationwide, rather states are monitoring more,” EPA officials said in a statement to Environmental Health News.
Because fish has high nutritional value and local waterways can offer an inexpensive source of protein, state agencies don’t want to discourage people from fishing in areas where contaminants are not considered risky. As a result, many states end up with a confusing patchwork of very specific advisories listing which species from which waterways are safe to eat.
In general, most advisories warn children and pregnant women to avoid consuming fish from affected waterways. Some offer guidance on the frequency of consumption or size of the fish. Others, like some advisories for selected New York waterways, warn against eating any fish whatsoever.