As sunshine and warm breezes finally reach the Sierra Nevada foothills, anglers across California reach for fishing poles, line, bait and tackle. And as people head to their favorite fishing holes, half have one other thing on their mind: dinner.
Most people know that eating fish is beneficial for your health, but few have read the warnings that eating certain fish species can be harmful to you and your family.
“People believe these rivers and lakes are clean because the water looks clear and there’s no garbage,” said Elizabeth Martin, the chief executive of The Sierra Fund. “So they show up with their coolers and pack them full of fish.”
In a region with a legacy of gold mining, everyone needs to know that there is mercury in our local fish. Millions of pounds of mercury were dumped into Sierra rivers and streams in the mining days. Today, that mercury lives in the bottom of our reservoirs, lakes and rivers. The way people are exposed to the mercury is by eating fish caught from these areas.
The good news is that some fish species, such as rainbow trout, are still safe to eat in moderation. But most people have little idea which or how much fish is safe to eat. Mercury exposure is dangerous for everyone, but it is especially harmful to children and developing fetuses, so children and women of child-bearing age should avoid eating fish such as bass and catfish, both high in mercury.
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) issues location-specific “Safe Eating Guidelines” to help people choose the safest fish to eat. For lakes and reservoirs where there is no location-specific advisory, they provide general guidelines to help you choose fish that are lower in mercury.
According to the Gold Country Angler Survey, a 2011 study by the Nevada City-based nonprofit The Sierra Fund, 90 percent of anglers at Sierra water bodies reported eating fish that was caught from mercury contaminated areas. And many of those questioned had little knowledge about mercury poisoning, potentially exposing children and women to the potent neurotoxin.
The Sierra Fund (TSF) has worked for the last several years on raising awareness of mercury health issues and creating health education materials specific to the Sierra. Although there is more information to be gathered on these issues, the message for Sierra anglers is clear: In the face of extensive mercury contamination, everyone eating fish from the Sierra needs to make educated choices about what kinds of fish they eat.
Amber Taxiera is the community outreach coordinator for The Sierra Fund, a Nevada City-based nonprofit organization. For more information, visit www.reclaimingthesierra.org or http://oehha.ca.gov/fish.html.