Despite advisories, study finds many still eating tainted fish
Many anglers in some of the most polluted areas around the Bay consume more fish than is safe to eat, and often share their catch with the families and others, according to a survey funded by the Bay Program.
Although many anglers—especially at Virginia sites where many fish consumption advisories were new—said they did not know the fish may pose a health risk, the survey found that others continued to eat their catch even when they knew advisories were in place.
“What we see is that the rate of awareness is relatively high, particularly in Baltimore where they had just done some good communications work,” said Greg Allen, toxics coordinator with the EPA’s Bay Program Office.
“But the rate of people not abiding by what they have heard is also surprisingly high, both in terms of exceeding the number of meals consumed, and not taking advantage of the techniques for preparing it to reduce the risk.”
The findings are based on hundreds of surveys conducted by researchers from the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University last summer on fishing piers, docks, boats and other locations in the Bay’s three most polluted regions: Baltimore Harbor, the Anacostia River and adjacent areas of the Potomac River and the Elizabeth River and adjacent areas of the James River.
The survey, which was recently published, stemmed from the Bay Program’s Toxics 2000 Strategy which called for an assessment of whether fish advisories in the region were effective and reaching all subpopulations.
In a result similar to studies conducted elsewhere, the survey found that minorities were more likely to eat potentially contaminated fish than whites, and that many people who ate their catch said they did so to reduce food costs.
Allen said the survey may help agencies identify demographic groups to target with fine-tuned outreach strategies.
Julie McClafferty, one of the lead researchers on the project, said one of the interviewer teams saw an Asian woman—whom the researchers were not able to talk to because she did not speak English or Spanish—with a string of a half-dozen catfish pulled from the Anacostia River, where it is a no-consumption species. “She was probably planning to take them home to eat them or feed them to her family, which is the absolute worst thing you can eat from the D.C. waters,” she said.
The survey did show that educational efforts can be effective. The Baltimore surveys, which took place shortly after the Maryland Department of the Environment had launched a large outreach effort to inform the public about their newly modified fish advisories, found 84 percent of anglers were aware of fish advisories—the highest of the three regions.
Nonetheless, 53 percent of anglers in the Baltimore area said they consumed at least some of the fish they caught and of those, 78 percent were consuming more than was recommended.
The most popular species for consumption—striped bass, white perch, catfish and blue crabs—were also species considered to have high levels of contamination, the report said.
Despite the high level of awareness, consumption varied among ethnic groups. Among white anglers, 45 percent consumed their catch. That rose to 65 percent among African-Americans. Economic factors were also a consideration: 44 percent of African-Americans said reducing food costs was part of the reason they fished, compared with 17 percent for whites.
In the Anacostia and nearby parts of the Potomac around the District of Columbia, 56 percent of those surveyed knew about consumption advisories for the water where they were fishing.
Only 37 percent said they were likely to consume fish they caught—less than the other two regions studied. The reason, according to the surveys, was the widely held perception among anglers that water quality, and fish safety, were poor.
Nonetheless, people who did consume fish often surpassed limits in advisories. A little more than half of those who ate their catch—51 percent—exceeded recommended amounts. Catfish—a no-consumption species according to advisories—was the most popular fish for consumption.
Also, 54 percent of the D.C. anglers—including half of those who did not eat fish themselves—gave away their catch, a trend noticed in other locations as well. The report said additional efforts may be needed to alert people who were not fishing—but were the recipients of fish—about consumption issues.
As in other areas, the D.C. area surveys revealed a noticeable difference in consumption among different ethnic groups: 30 percent of white anglers consumed their catch, compared with 36 percent of African-Americans, 43 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of Asians.
Also, the report said, minorities were more likely to provide their families with their catch than whites, and they tended to prepare fish in less risk-reducing ways, such as frying, were less likely to remove skin or fat, or more likely to consume raw fish.
Those factors mean increased risk exposure for minority anglers and those in their households, the report said. Children and pregnant women are at especially high risk from many toxins found in fish, such as mercury.
The researchers found it difficult to gauge knowledge of fish advisories in the Elizabeth River and nearby areas of the lower James because, although an advisory for the pesticide Kepone had been in place for years, a new advisory for PCBs was issued several weeks into the survey period.
The lower James/Elizabeth was also notable because, unlike the other areas where fishing was dominated by local residents, more than a third traveled more than 50 miles to reach their fishing site, and a quarter had traveled more than 100 miles—something that makes raising awareness more difficult.
But the surveys showed that nearly all anglers—91 percent—consumed the fish that they ate. Fewer than 3 percent said they were concerned about pollution when consuming their catch, and 81 percent said that fish from local waters were safe to eat.
“The main reason anglers believed that fish were safe to eat was that they had been eating fish from local waters for years and had not seen or experienced any bad effects,” the report said. “The next most common response among anglers was that if the fish were unsafe, there would be sign postings and the anglers would have heard of advisories. Only 5 percent mentioned that they had seen advisories during the interview, even though they had been in effect throughout most of the interviewing period.”
That points to the difficulty in raising, and maintaining public awareness about fish advisories. The report found that some of the lowest cost ways preferred by agencies to raise awareness, such as postings on the Internet, were considered to be the least effective by anglers.
They were more likely to learn about advisories through television, newspapers, signs, and personal contacts, the survey found. But anglers told researchers the best way to learn about advisories was through personal contact—either from talking to other anglers at fishing sites, or hearing from agency representatives. That was also the most expensive way to advise people, the report noted.
“That’s difficult, and certainly not cheap, either,” McClafferty said. But she said that by giving talks to watershed and community groups, as well as church and civic organizations, agencies might be able to increase the word-of-mouth spread of information. “The idea is to get as many mouths and feet out there as possible to spread the message within the community.”
The full report, “Chesapeake Bay Angler Interviews: Identifying Populations at Risk for Consuming Contaminated Fish in Three Regions of Concern,” may be found on the internet at : www.cmiweb.org/human/CBP_fishadvisory04.html
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