DETROIT - The fish from many of Michigan’s Great Lakes and inland waters are so laden with PCBs, mercury, dioxins and other chemical toxins that they shouldn’t be eaten by children or women of childbearing age. And some fish from some of our waters shouldn’t be eaten by anyone of any age.
That’s incredibly sad. And what’s sadder is that the State of Michigan hasn’t done much to make it possible for you to learn about it.
A dozen years or so ago, you were handed a Fish Eating Advisory when you bought a fishing license. Not anymore. The brochures are now printed by the Michigan Department of Health, and a spokesperson said there’s no longer any money to hand them out wholesale.
You can call and ask for one, which will be mailed to you, or you can get it online from the Health Department or the Department of Natural Resources. But don’t people have to know that such a report is available before they’ll ask for it?
And how about the fish you eat in restaurants? The Health Department includes a short section that’s supposed to help diners make choices. But again, they have to know that there could be a problem before they can make those decisions.
And if you ask, is the waiter going to know if the broiled whitefish on the menu came from Lake Michigan south of Frankfort, where women and children can eat one meal a month, or from north of Frankfort, where the whitefish are so contaminated that women and children shouldn’t eat any?
Or do you think the waiter will know if the walleye fillet comes from a fish that was under 22 inches, and is therefore safe to eat in some waters, or over 22 inches and not safe?
And how is an angler to know if the white bass he caught is safe eating for anyone of any age (fish from Lake Erie) or unsafe for everyone of all ages (fish from Saginaw Bay)?
Needless to say, commercial fishermen and people who depend on sport fishing for a living, like tackle shop and resort owners, get extremely agitated if anyone suggests fish are unsafe to eat.
But the arguments of people who depend on those fish for their livelihoods shouldn’t outweigh the right of anglers and restaurant patrons to look at the health information and make up their own minds about whether to eat them.
Although the DNR first split the advisory out of the Michigan Fishing Guide and then ditched it completely, that doesn’t change the facts that fish from Michigan waters often are unsafe food for children and women of childbearing age and some are unsafe for anyone.
I sometimes hear people pooh-pooh the warnings, saying they’ve eaten Great Lakes fish all their lives with no effects.
However, they often don’t know if there are no ill effects. One scientific study suggests that eating some Great Lakes fish compromises mental abilities. And there’s no way to directly connect a cancer or other disease in a 60-year-old man with the fish that he ate from the Great Lakes as a kid.
But would you rather risk the long-term health of your children and grandchildren on the unsupported beliefs of a neighbor, or on the word of medical researchers who have performed careful tests?
We know a lot more now about the effects of the pollutants that get into the lakes, especially the methyl mercury from coal-fired power plants.
And a couple of things we’ve learned are that infants and fetuses, whose brains are growing at an incredible rate, are at much greater risk than adults, and that mercury is more damaging at far lower levels than we used to think.
No one can say for sure that any one person is going to suffer long-term health consequences from regular meals of eating chemically compromised Michigan fish. But we can say that a given percentage of the people who do will suffer from decreased brain development, cancers, etc.
If you want to take that risk as an adult, that’s your choice. But don’t impose it on children.