Fish Advisories Reflect Health of Nation's Waters

I remember a time back in the early '80s when a friend caught a giant size bass from the Arkansas River. When I asked what he planned to do with it, he said, "Take it home and eat it, of course!" That was scary.

James Laughlin

I remember a time back in the early '80s when a friend caught a giant size bass from the Arkansas River. When I asked what he planned to do with it, he said, "Take it home and eat it, of course!" That was scary.

At the time an advisory was out warning people not to eat fish from the river because of high pollutant levels. The Arkansas was severely polluted and signs were posted warning people the river water was not safe for human contact. All that has changed now, and people routinely wade out into the river to catch their dinner.

As a nation, we've come a long way from those days of heavily polluted rivers and streams. However, catching your dinner can still be a tricky proposition, healthwise.

For the 12th straight year, EPA has released its summary of information on locally issued fish advisories and safe-eating guidelines. The report shows that the number of fish advisories is increasing even as emissions for major pollutants are decreasing and as pollutants such as DDT and chlordane are banned in the United States.

In 2003, 48 states, the District of Columbia and American Samoa issued 3,094 fish advisories, 280 more than the previous year. With these additions, 35 percent of the total lake acres and 24 percent of the river miles in the nation are now under advisory. Since 2002, the number of lake acres under an advisory increased by two percent, river miles by nine percent and coastline by four percent.

A large part of the increase in lake acres and river miles under advisory occurred because Montana and Washington issued statewide advisories for all their lakes and rivers in 2003 and Hawaii issued a statewide advisory for its entire coastline.

States issue advisories for any of 40 different pollutants. Most advisories (98 percent) involve five bioaccumulative contaminants: PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, DDT and mercury. In addition to steps to reduce mercury emissions, actions have or are being taken to address other pollutants of concern: production of PCBs for use ceased in 1977, chlordane was banned in 1988, DDT was banned in 1972 and dioxin emissions have been dramatically reduced.

States issue fish consumption advisories if elevated concentrations of chemicals such as mercury or dioxin are found in local fish. As new waters are tested and results added to previous years' findings, the number of fish advisories continues to rise. Most of the new fishing advisories involve mercury despite the fact that U.S. emissions of mercury have declined by almost 50 percent since 1990.

States may issue safe-eating guidelines in addition to issuing fish advisories. A fish advisory is issued to warn the public of the potential human health risks from chemical contamination of certain species from particular types of waterbodies such as lakes, rivers and/ or coastal waters within the state. In contrast, a safe-eating guideline is issued to inform the public that fish from specific waterbodies have been tested for chemical contaminants, and the fish from these waters are safe to eat without consumption restrictions.

The number of safe-eating guidelines nearly doubled in 2002 (164 were added) and increased a further 14 percent (47 were added) in 2003. The number of guidelines is likely to continue to grow as additional states identify safe fishing waters in future years.

A fact sheet with additional information on fish advisories and safe-eating guidelines is available at: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/.

James Laughlin, Editor

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