The Potentially Poisonous Problem of Fishing for Dinner

July 29, 2015|12:54 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

In just about any urban or suburban setting where there is a natural water source, it is common to see anglers casting lines into the water. Frequently, these are not people fishing for recreational purposes; they are hoping to catch their protein rather than purchase it. As a recent Associated Press (AP) article points out, the fishers are often from low-income families, many come from cultures where fish are strongly preferred over other types of protein, and many do not know of the health risks of a diet in which fish from these waters comprises a dietary staple.

Most water sources near urban areas can yield fish that are high in toxins, including mercury. Just about every state health agency has a program to warn its citizens of the health hazards of consuming fish from these sources (for examples, see the sites of Massachusetts, Washington State, Missouri, and North Carolina).

State health agencies work to get the message out in several ways. New York State, for example, prints pamphlets for Long Island and New York City waters in English, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Polish, and Russian. The state also works with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe on a communication program, and developed radio public service announcements—in English and Spanish—as part of its Hudson River Fish Advisory Outreach Project.

In Arkansas, three state agencies—Game and Fish Commission, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Health—form the Mercury in Fish Taskforce. Outreach includes posting signs and using park rangers to help reach the fishing public about safety issues regarding fish in certain waters.

In many cases, these outreach efforts have proven effective. In 2006, a study noted that an outreach campaign in Vermont reached almost half of the public in the state’s largest county, and of those, many changed their behavior. A Rhode Island study showed that consumers did indeed notice in-store education efforts. And an EPA study in conjunction with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality showed that traditional media—particularly television and radio—as well as on-site postings were the most effective methods to communicated toxin dangers.

Still, as the AP article points out, risks of overexposure to the toxins in fish can be a particularly difficult message to get to urban populations fishing from bridges, underpasses, and in other urban areas, making this an area for continuing concern and effort for health agencies.