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Old 05-09-2004, 06:49 PM
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Fishing over and eating out of troubled waters

By Roger Aziz

I enjoy eating fish. Being a fisherman, this is not a major revelation.

But it's the reason I'm chagrined over the fact that now most freshwater fish -- and for that matter some saltwater species -- are now considered a health threat. Even those healthy looking big bass have become the victims of pollutants contaminating our lakes and ponds.

The pollutants do not take root in a fish overnight. The contamination develops over time as fish feed on smaller ones already harmed. That is why the larger the fish, the more likely it is to be contaminated above safe levels set by both state and federal health agencies.

It would be different if the fish we ate left a bad taste in our mouth. We would then voluntarily want to give up eating them. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the species we have eaten for years. Most still appear healthy and taste just fine.

Long before we began to be concerned about those allegedly contaminated freshwater fish here in Massachusetts, New York fishermen were being warned to eat their large Lake Ontario trout only in small quantities. Because mercury poisoning is cumulative, it is wise not to eat any species of fish that may have levels approaching unsafe amounts.

Fish contaminated with PCBs, dioxins and mercury, to name but a few chemicals in our waters, are not restricted to the East Coast. From Idaho to Texas to Minnesota and throughout most of the continuous states, health advisories have been issued against eating freshwater fish.

In Massachusetts, freshwater fish (those that are considered warmwater species such as bass, pickerel, crappie, and horned pout) are allegedly contaminated with PCBs and mercury. The larger the fish, the more unfit it is to eat.

Warning signs hung at some ponds, such as Haverhill's Round and Plug ponds, explain to fishermen the effects of eating species caught there, and several other lakes in Massachusetts bear the same warnings.

Now, Atlantic salmon brood stock fish are suspect. While the authorities suggest these fish will pass the government tests for safe levels of PCBs in their systems, salmon stocking has been halted until the results are revealed in about six weeks.

Because the federal government offered to test Massachusetts trout for free, it was given some hatchery fish to examine. Chances are these fish will be found to be safe to eat.

While Bay State trout are fed the same type food as salmon, those trout not as large or as old as salmon when stocked ought to be will within safe levels. For hatchery fish, their diet appears to be the prime cause for PCBs in their flesh.

These days, fishermen must use common sense when eating freshwater fish. Unfortunately, this deprives us of an inexpensive source of protein and some fine dining.
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