Follow Fish Advisories To Catch Local Stories

May 22, 2019
A sign at Lake Hartwell in Georgia in August 2017 warns of health issues associated with consuming PCB-contaminated fish caught there. PCBs are just one example of bioaccumulative chemicals, such as mercury and DDT, that create risk for those who catch and eat fish laden with them. Photo: Thomas Cizauskas, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Follow Fish Advisories To Catch Local Stories

The fishing season is well underway in most U.S. waters and recreational fishers are helping themselves to a healthy diet — in most cases. But not all.

In polluted waters, fish and shellfish can contain chemicals and microbes that make people sick. Smart fishers will want to be aware of federal and state fish advisories. And environmental journalists can help with that.

Usually, it’s a very local story, focused on specific populations getting specific fish from specific bodies of water.


Why it matters

Fish and seafood are an important source of protein and other nutrients for many people. While high in protein, fish are typically low in saturated fat. They contain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins like D and B2 (riboflavin) and are rich in calcium, phosphorus and other minerals.

For most people, the American Heart Association recommends eating two servings a week. But that recommendation excludes certain sensitive populations like pregnant women and certain high-mercury species like albacore tuna.

Too much of the wrong fish can harm some people’s health. Mercury, a neurotoxin, comes from many sources, but a lot is deposited on water bodies as particles generated by coal-burning power plants. In the water, biological processes change it into its most toxic form, methylmercury, and concentrations increase in the food chain as big fish eat little fish.

Once in the human body, mercury “bioaccumulates.” Most people have trace amounts in their bodies, but harm to health can result from high levels in pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children.

Mercury is such a prevalent problem that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have issued a national “advisory” warning people about when consumption is safe or unsafe.

And that’s just mercury. Many other toxic chemicals can be found in fish that raise health concerns. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, a chemical once widely used in industry) is another example of a persistent, bioaccumulative chemical that finds its way into some fish. Others include once-used pesticides like DDT and dieldrin, or brominated flame retardants.

A further concern is disease-causing microorganisms. Shellfish that filter-feed can be contaminated by many pathogens, and state and local health authorities often monitor shellfish beds to keep people from getting water-borne diseases.

One of the worst threats to shellfish waters is untreated sewage, which provides a common fecal-oral pathway for diseases like cholera. But harmful algal blooms (e.g., the notorious “red tide) can produce toxins that make seafood dangerous (if they don’t kill it outright).


The people who consume the most fish,

and may therefore be at greatest risk,

are often subsistence and recreational fishers.


The people who consume the most fish, and may therefore be at greatest risk, are often subsistence and recreational fishers. You may want to pay special attention to them in your coverage.

Salmon, for example, are of profound cultural and nutritional importance to tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest, and are the subject of specific laws and treaties. Although there is much bad news about salmon (numbers), the good news may be that they are often healthful to eat. Subsistence fishing is an important part of many Native American cultures, and often a major part of their diet.

If you go out to a dam or bridge in many parts of the country at this time of year (e.g., the Chesapeake Bay), you will find regular crowds of all kinds of fishers. Some of them are regulars. And many of those are doing it because they do not have big incomes and fish are inexpensive food (other than the cost of a license). Those folks and their families often eat a lot of fish, and are more at risk for any health issues noted in fish advisories.     


The back story

At the national level, actions related to fish consumption and human health are authorized for EPA and FDA, among other agencies.

EPA, via the Clean Water Act, has the overarching authority on water pollution control, although much of that is delegated to the states. FDA regulates the safety of seafood under authorities like the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, although its main concerns go to seafood that is imported or sold commercially — again, leaving a lot to state and local fishery and health authorities.

So the fish advisories that spawn local stories are most often issued by state and local agencies in response to often-changing local conditions. It is usually clear, in a given state, where these advisories come from — a specific agency or agencies.

For many years, the U.S. EPA tried to compile and publish all these advisories, but it was a big, difficult job, and EPA stopped doing it. Historical archives of EPA’s old advisory databases (as well as some Canadian ones) are still available online, and these may be a helpful adjunct to any story you do.


Story ideas

  • What have been the chronic sources of fish advisories in your area? Are current advisories similar to those in past years? What, if anything, is being done to address those problems?
  • Are fish advisories in your area seasonal? Why? Water temperature? Flood or drought? Seasonal pollution issues like red tide? And are fishing seasons correspondingly regulated?
  • Is water pollution a root cause of your fish advisories? What causes it? Are there too many stormwater events? Are water pollution permits inadequate or unenforced?
  • Is there a subsistence fishing culture in your area? Go out to the bridge, dam, culvert or other popular fishing area and talk to people.
  • Talk to the staff of the fish counter in your local stores, and find out more about where their fish come from.


Reporting resources

  • The U.S. EPA maintains a listing of state, territorial and tribal agencies responsible for issuing fish advisories. Find yours and contact them. EPA lists other information resources as well.
  • Find the agency or agencies that issue fishing licenses in your area and talk to them.
  • Talk to your local or state health or public health department.
  • Ask your local fisheries people about stream surveys or fish tissue sampling research.
  • Go to the places where bait and tackle are sold, and hang out. Talk to people there, including proprietors. You may at least find out where the fishing is good. Be aware, though, that store owners may have a conflict of interest.
  • State and national parks, refuges and forests, or other public land units, are often popular fishing spots. Talk to the managers of such parks.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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