Mixed messages from the states may be partially responsible for the significant percentage of anglers who are either unaware or choose to ignore the advisories.
In Western New York, the Niagara River is located near some of the nation’s most notorious chemical dumps, including Occidental Chemical’s Love Canal and Hyde Park. As a consequence, some of the earliest – and strictest - advisories have been in place for decades there for carcinogenic dioxins and other contaminants.
But, while the New York departments of Health and Environmental Conservation have tried to publicize the risk, other state agencies have promoted sport fishing and have even constructed fish cleaning stations along the tainted Niagara River, where strict consumption advisories are in place. The advisory warns against eating any channel catfish, carp, lake trout over 25 inches, brown trout over 20 inches and white perch. For all other species, the recommendation is one fish meal per month – none for children or women under 50.
“That conflict undermines the importance of the issue,” said Katy Brown of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, an advocacy group that disseminates information to minority anglers.
In Wisconsin, the state tourism office promotes sport fishing – with scant mention of any possible health risk. “Their position seems to be, the lakes and rivers are for recreation, not a source of food,” Powell said.
On the other hand, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has tried a number of methods – including translation of brochures and websites into Spanish and Hmong – to try to spread the message.
Candy Schrank, a state toxicologist, defends the apparent conflict. “Tourism’s main mission is to connect visitors to activities and opportunities like fishing,” she said. “Most states have some level of fish consumption advice and most states have a wide variety and number of lakes and rivers that provide good opportunities for people to eat fish safely.”
Despite those efforts, a survey showed that only 42 percent of Wisconsin adults were aware of the fish advisories.
Some advisories may not provide adequate protection because they are based on state data that underestimate quantities consumed by minority, low-income populations. They also assume that anglers will clean and filet the fish when some eat the whole thing.
“There has been little emphasis on really understanding fish consumption practices among these populations,” Ventura said.
In Wisconsin, Mackey remained unconvinced that eating fish caught anywhere on the Great Lakes might pose a health threat.
"I'll take anything that comes out of the water," he said.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.