by Ralph Jimenez, New Hampshire Bulletin
I got a call a few nights ago from a lifelong outdoorsman up north. After a stint in the hospital, he’s on the mend and feeling chipper enough to plan to be on his local trout pond on opening day, April 22. To prepare, in a rite of spring familiar to plenty of anglers, he’s been tying a few flies. I didn’t mention that he probably had a thousand or more tucked in books, boxes, and vests hanging on a wall in his barn.
I have a few score of un-floated flies myself and thought maybe I should join him. It’s been a decade or more since we fished together and fried up the catch, but things have changed and time has changed me.
Fair warning, this isn’t a “me and Joe” outdoors column. It’s about a public health threat that hasn’t been given nearly enough attention, one that affects children, New Americans, low-income anglers, and pregnant women the most.
In January, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization, published the results of tests done on more than 500 samples of freshwater fish collected across the nation during an EPA monitoring program. All but one sample tested positive for the ubiquitous “forever chemicals” known as PFOS, or PFAS, substances used in nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, water-proofing sprays, and plastics.
“Consuming even a single (locally caught freshwater) fish per year can measurably and significantly change the levels of PFOS in your blood,” David Andrews, a senior scientist with the group, said.
Significant levels of PFAS have been found in water supplies in Portsmouth, Merrimack, and other New Hampshire communities, but the chemicals are everywhere. Ingesting them can contribute to a host of health problems, including an increased risk of certain cancers. Unfortunately, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are only some of the harmful or toxic pollutants now found in fish. Depending on the water body and species, fish may contain dangerous levels of PCBs, a now-banned industrial chemical, and mercury, much of that the result of burning coal.
I’ve always been, at heart, what’s called a meat fisherman. I release small fish, fish who’ve put up a noble fight, big fish in their prime reproductive years. But I’ve always felt that the point of fishing was to catch and eat fish.
Most of my angler friends of recent years are “catch and release” practitioners. This is an old debate, but at its heart is a serious moral question. It’s always seemed to me that catching fish for fun, not food, amounts to harassing wildlife for one’s amusement. Depending on the species, length of battle, and other factors, it’s estimated that up to 20 percent of caught and released fish die.
So if you can’t safely eat what you catch anymore is it ethical to fish at all? I don’t know, but would be happy to be convinced that it is.
New Hampshire’s state agencies are aware of the health risks and the Department of Fish and Game’s website and angling handbook carry advisories about safe consumption limits. For example: “Children under age 7 can safely eat ONE 4-ounce meal of freshwater fish per month.”
The advisories, however, are not easy to find. Studies in other states discovered that the people least likely to be aware of the dangers are the people most likely to eat large amounts of locally caught fish.
Language and literacy barriers prevent some populations from learning about the advisories. Jonathan Meiman, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Department of Public Health, in that state’s survey, found that the local Burmese population, for reasons both cultural and economic, ate enough local, freshwater fish that the levels of PFAS and mercury in their blood was several times higher than average. African Americans, in the same survey, reported eating two or three times more local fish than the white population.
Both PFAS and mercury are believed to have harmful effects on childhood development, including, in mercury’s case, impaired cognitive development.
Fish and Game also publishes a list of water bodies from which fish should not be eaten. The list includes a big portion of Squam Lake (the “On Golden Pond” of movie fame), much of the Androscoggin River, and Concord’s Horseshoe Pond. I often see anglers at the latter, many of them New Americans.
Fish and Game does not have the staff or resources to adequately get the word out to all who would benefit from learning about the problem. Organizations like the Endowment for Health, the Foundation for Healthy Communities, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation could help by funding an effort to print the fish consumption advisories in Spanish, Nepali, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Pashto, and other languages on cards that could be handed out by conservation officers and posted at boat ramp kiosks.
It’s a sad pass to have come to, but anglers need to know how much fish, how often, and from where, is safe to eat.
This story was written by Ralph Jimenez, a former newspaper editor and now contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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