Archive for June, 2008

Fishing & Environmental Justice

Fishing & Environmental Justice

The Midwest Environmental Justice Organization (MEJO) has a mission to educate the community about environmental justice issues, work to address them, and support environmental justice for the benefit of the general public.

We have been working with people of color and low-income residents for more than two years discussing toxins in locally-caught fish, and learning about cultural practices regarding fishing and preparing and eating fish.

Due to mercury and PCB levels in fish, the State of Wisconsin has issued fish advisory warnings regarding toxins to anglers and those who eat locally caught fish from inland Wisconsin waters. Yet fish advisory information is little known or unknown to many anglers.

Levels of mercury, PCBs and other toxins that concentrate in fish are a known public health hazard. Shoreline anglers catch and consume many pan fish that may have lower toxin levels than larger fish, but when consumed in high quantities they may exceed levels recommended to avoid negative health effects; they also frequently catch and consume larger fish, which tend to have higher concentrations of toxins.

Through our investigations, we have learned that public agencies have very little data about local fish consumption habits and toxin levels in locally caught fish and have little interaction with local anglers and their families who eat large amounts of locally caught fish.

Levels of mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, and other toxins are high enough in Dane County lake sediments and waters to raise concerns that people may need to limit their consumption of fish caught in these waters because these compounds build up in fish tissue, which humans consume (see the “Data Collection” section below).

Women of childbearing age, pregnant women and children are especially at risk for developmental, neurological and long term health problems from exposure to toxins present in locally caught fish. The environmental impacts of pollution on low-income and minority citizens are often unknown or underestimated because of a lack of data collection, and lack of consideration of these populations in determining public policy. This reality is a key component of environmental justice.

The common good and sound public health policy is served by informing anglers and others of potential risks associated with consuming many kinds of locally caught fish.

We recommend that fish consumption advisory information be better communicated, especially to low-income and color communities, through permanent, laminated metal signs at popular publicly-accessible shoreline fishing locations, in Hmong, Spanish and English.

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Survey: Shoreline Anglers Eat A Lot of Fish

MEJO has interviewed 129 people and held 12 focus group meetings with 150 participants over the past two years. The meetings were held at neighborhood centers, agency facilities and public locations such as Brittingham Park . Interview were held in the same locations, plus food pantries and shoreline fishing spots. Most participants are low income, minority and fish locally or eat locally caught fish caught by members of their family

We learned the following:

  • Most people are unaware of fish consumption advisories, and no one had seen the DNR booklet or the DHFS brochure about them. (These two documents are the primary educational method used by the State of Wisconsin.)
  • Many people eat large numbers of fish weekly, especially during fishing season (which can extend from April into October). The annual average number of fish meals consumed by families is 2.8 per week. For African Americans, 2.3 fish meals per week; Hmong 3.6 fish meals per week; Latino 3.9 fish meals per week; and White 1.5 fish meals per week. Many people eat 10 or more fish meals per week, with some eating fish at every meal, every day.
  • The most popular shoreline fishing locations are around Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, with two-thirds of respondents saying they fish along these lakes. Almost fifty percent said they fish Monona Bay in Brittingham Park. Other top fishing spots are Tenney Park (Lagoon and Yahara River), Cherokee Marsh (Cherokee Lake and Cherokee Marsh/Yahara River at State Highway 113/ Northport Drive), Lake Wingra and the Wisconsin River (mostly in Sauk City).
  • Hmong prefer white bass, which is a smaller game fish that can have higher levels of some contaminants, but which is not identified on the DHFS brochure and is rarely tested for contaminates by the DNR.
  • African Americans prefer catfish (while many others also like to eat catfish). Catfish can have higher levels of some contaminants (especially PCBs), but which is not identified on the DHFS brochure and is rarely tested for contaminates by the DNR.
  • Awareness of mercury, PCBs and other contaminants in the water and fish is low, with little understanding of the pollution cycle.
  • Most people are unaware that trimming fat and removing the skin will help reduce PCBs in the cooked fish, or that mercury is in the muscle tissue and cannot be removed at all.
  • Many people do not fillet fish. Leaving the skin on, not removing fat and using fish heads in soups are all common practices which lead to greater exposure to many contaminants.
  • When shown the DHFS brochure (in English, Spanish or Hmong), many people did not find the fish they ate and therefore erroneously assumed that those fish are okay to eat (meaning they think no advisory exists for those fish).
  • People thought fish consumption advisory signs at shoreline fishing locations would be beneficial.

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