Monday, May 1st, marked the opening of walleye season in Lake Erie, reputed to be the finest walleye fishery in the world. Unfortunately, we must be aware of the fact that Lake Erie fish, including walleye, contain toxins that may be hazardous to your health. High concentrations of chemical and heavy metal contaminants, such as PCBs, pesticides and mercury, are found in fish from the eastern end of Lake Erie. Many people are not aware of New York State Department of Health warnings and advice concerning eating these fish.
Fish are an important part of my culture. I am Hodenosaunee meaning “The People of the Longhouse”, I am a member of the Seneca Nation, born into the heron clan. Herons, whether two- legged or winged, love to catch and eat fish. I consider fish one of those true gifts as sweet as water and air itself. There is a social dance in my culture called the fish dance; it is a way to thank the creator for this gift and honor the bountiful catches. I have very fond memories of fishing for walleye and trout with my family along the Cattaraugus and Clear Creeks on the Cattaraugus reservation. I remember walking to the creek on a warm day, worms and fishing pole in hand, collecting wild berries or rhubarb along the way. We would find large numbers of fish, the bottom of the creek would be dark and moving. We would take what we needed for that meal. When all was done we would go for a swim. It was how we grew up. It was our sustenance. Some go to the grocery store, we went to the creek.
Fish are good to eat and good for you. But if they live in contaminated waters, some pollutants will concentrate in their bodies, and if you eat too many fish from these waters, the pollution can build up in your body as well. The effects on your health may range from small changes that are hard to detect all the way up to birth defects and cancer. Mothers who eat highly contaminated fish and game before becoming pregnant may have children who are slower to develop and learn.
This has led New York State to issue fish advisories in our community. What is a fish advisory? The states have primary responsibility for protecting their residents from the health risks of consuming contaminated non-commercially caught fish. They do this by issuing consumption advisories for recreational fishers, subsistence fishers, and for sensitive subpopulations (such as pregnant women, fetuses, nursing mothers and their infants, and children). The advisory tells you how to minimize your exposure to contaminants in sport fish and game and reduce whatever health risks are associated with them. For example, since many contaminants are found at higher levels in the fat of fish, you can reduce your intake of contaminants by properly trimming your catch. This includes removing the skin, trimming all the fat from the belly flap, the line along the sides, along the back and under the skin. However, some contaminants are stored in the muscle (meat) of the fish and cannot be removed by trimming. Older (larger) fish are often more contaminated than younger (smaller) fish.
The New York State Department of Health 1999-2000 general health advisory for sport fish is that you eat no more than one meal (half a pound) per week of fish taken from the state’s fresh waters. The department recommends that women of childbearing age and children under the age of 15 SHOULD NOT EAT ANY fish from bodies of water listed in the department’s health advisories.
As for walleye and other fish caught in Lake Erie, New York has issued an advisory to women of childbearing age, infants and children under the age of 15. They are advised to eat no more than ONE MEAL PER WEEK of yellow perch, burbot, freshwater drum, lake whitefish, rock bass and Chinook salmon less than 19 inches, and to eat nor more than ONE MEAL PER MONTH of all other fish from Lake Erie. Other people should eat no more than one meal per week of any Lake Erie fish species. The contaminants that led to the advisory are listed with each advisory; they include mercury, cadmium, PCBs, chlordane, dioxin, DDT and mirex.
Women and children are at highest risk. Toxins may have a greater effect on developing organs in young children or in the fetus; they also may build up in women’s bodies and be passed on in mother’s milk. Downstream from us, along the St. Lawrence River, Mohawk women from Akwasasne cannot breast feed their babies due to high levels of toxins in their breast milk.
What can we do? Be aware of fish advisories wherever you fish; practice catch and release techniques; help clean up streams, creeks, rivers, lakes and wetlands in your neighborhood; reduce, reuse, recycle. The most urgent step is to immediately reduce releases of food chain contaminants. In my culture we are taught to make decisions for seven generations to come. When we make decisions that affect our environment and health, let us think like a grandparent or a great grandparent. Let us make decisions that will honor and sustain all peoples for generations to come.
To get involved in cleaning up Lake Erie and its tributary streams, please contact Great Lakes United at 886-0142. For more information on fish advisories in Western New York contact NY State Department of Health at 800/458-6178.
These advisories can be found at www.health.state.ny. us/nysdoh/environ/fish.htm.
Maria R Maybee
Habitat and Biodiversity Network Coordinator
Great Lakes United
Cassety Hall, Buffalo State College
1300 Elmwood Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14222