On almost any rainless day, anglers may be observed fishing the waters of North Texas’ Trinity River. The pickup trucks, ice chests and laughing children running ahead of parents, and jockeying for a nice flat rock on which to stake a fishing base, suggest a rosy picture of outdoor family fun.

The problem with this vignette is what one doesn’t see: warning signs notifying anglers that consumption of any fish from the upper basin of the Trinity River is dangerous. Possession of fish from this river covering four Texas counties is prohibited due to the high presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlordane and DDE, a known carcinogen.

In August 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 48 states, the District of Columbia and American Samoa had issued statements regarding the presence of chemical toxins in local fish. Currently, 44 states have issued advisories for the most pervasive contaminant, mercury. Yet, recent surveys suggest that most anglers are completely unaware of the dangers.

Changing horse in midstream

The damaging effects of overexposure to mercury are widely known among scientists and the EPA. For developing fetuses, infants and children, high mercury levels in the nervous system can mean a lifetime of learning disabilities and developmental deficiencies. For adults, unhealthy levels of mercury cause liver damage and cardiovascular disease.

While mercury exposure can come from a variety of sources, coal-burning power plants are known to be responsible for most of the nation’s “hotspots,” including fish-laden rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Yet after years of decrying rising mercury levels in the nation’s waters and the harmful potential of eating self-caught fish, the EPA, under the Bush administration, made an about-face this year when it announced revisions to earlier findings describing power companies as the major cause of increasing water contamination. The EPA’s so called “new rule” would allow these same companies to pollute at higher levels and for longer durations than current pollution standards allow!

Fearing for the public health, a score of concerned health professionals, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Nurse Association, are intervening in a lawsuit brought in June against the EPA by the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation.

When the very federal agency charged with protecting our environment falls into the hands of an administration that is welded to private utility polluters, citizens might hope that their state officials would take up the cause of preserving public waterways and wildlife. Unfortunately, state governments are making little if any effort to protect the public from contaminated fish.

Ignorance is bliss?

Like all states in the U.S., Texas has an ongoing issue with fish and shellfish contamination.

Mercury ranks first as the culprit. Advisories limiting fish consumption (usually about 8 ounces once a month for adults, and 4 ounces per month for pregnant women and children) are applicable in 33 counties in Texas including all Texas coastal waters. Outright bans exist for seven waterbodies covering six different counties.

While all states publish fish consumption advisories in their annual wildlife and sports publications, generally distributed where fishing and hunting licenses are sold, only a very few states, such as Connecticut and Washington, have made an effort to post signs in areas where bans and advisories are actually in effect.

“The Outdoor Annual,” published for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is the primary source of fishing and hunting regulations in the state. This publication and its web site counterpart provide the public with the only official TPWD statements regarding fish and shellfish advisories. Less than two pages out of the 112-page book are devoted to fishing advisories and bans.

Obstructing public awareness further, the handout is not available in Spanish. For Texans, where one in three citizens speak a language other than English at home, and more than 14 percent report that they speak English “less than very well,” this is an outrage. State agencies have an obligation to communicate dangers to the public in languages accessible to all.

Catch limits skirt health issue

Compounding the confusion propagated by the handout, the legal daily catch limits published in the “Outdoor Annual” bear no relation to recommended consumption advisories. A family out fishing on a sunny Saturday might count themselves fortunate to have each caught their daily limit of five fish, but if they eat more than a small portion in that same month, they could be harming their health.

Two Texas state representatives, Jessica Farar and Garnet Coleman, introduced bills during this year’s legislative session that would have required warning signs to be posted at fishing areas under advisories as well as restaurants and retail establishments where fish and shellfish known to be high in contaminants are sold. Staff at both offices cited a lack of interest, and the Republican majority’s efforts to block many bills introduced by Democrats, as the reason for the bills’ failures. It is hoped that the bills will be taken up again in the 2006 session.

While agreeing in principle with posting warnings to anglers, a spokesperson for the TPWD cited money as the reason for the absence of warning notices. He further indicated that some grant money had enabled the department to erect a few signs at Caddo Lake State Park, where largemouth bass and freshwater drum have tested high for mercury. The signs “went missing” after only a week. TPWD officials were also aware that a few notices had been posted in the banned area of the Trinity River, but could not say where or even if they were still there.

The dollar amount of state funding for conservation and wildlife programs may not be the only hindrance to notifying the public about the dangers of eating the fish they are catching. At least two states, California and Texas, fund parks and lakes programs from the sales of fishing and hunting licenses, creating an obvious conflict of interest. An agency dependent on funding from fishing licenses is unlikely to place a high priority on notifying those same customers that self-caught fish may be dangerous to eat.

Poor at higher risk

While outdoor sports associations insist that “catch and release” practices (a method by which fish are caught, then released live back into their habitat) are on the rise, questionnaires used to support these statistics are circulated exclusively among fishing license holders. In Texas, a single license to fish for one year begins at $28, prohibiting many low-income fishers from purchasing the permit.

An informal survey of anglers fishing at one North Texas lake, where the consumption of fish has long been questionable, yielded uncomfortable responses. Many people were embarrassed, but did admit that they personally ate the fish they caught. A few said that they did not eat fish out of the lake, but insisted they knew many people who did. There is no doubt that poor families, especially in rural areas, have traditionally supplemented their groceries with self-caught fish. Additionally, dietary cultural influences frequently support eating locally caught fish.

Raising awareness

Fishing in North America is not the exclusive realm of tournament aficionados and leisure sportsmen. Yet, by virtue of their class status and English speaking ability, they may very well be the only anglers in many states who are aware of the consumption bans and advisories. Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Natural Resources Defense Council are just two organizations focusing on raising the public’s awareness of safe fish consumption levels. Every citizen can assist in this effort by calling their representatives and demanding support for anti-pollution legislation and clean air and water.

Lisa Casey Perry (perry5@swbell.net) is a writer living in North Texas.