By Susan Smith, Lake Erie Allegheny Earth Force
In 1997, a small group of 9th grade students at the Villa Maria Academy, in Erie, Pennsylvania were investigating area environmental concerns for their annual Earth Force project. Earth Force is a national, youth-driven, non-profit educational organization founded in 1994 that emphasizes young people changing their communities and caring for their environment, while developing lifelong habits of active citizenship and environmental stewardship.
The students’ environmental survey revealed that there was a need to alert all those who eat Lake Erie fish of health advisory guidelines on fish consumption. The students discovered that many who catch and eat fish from Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay as a regular part of their diet were unaware of the health risks of eating these fish or how certain methods of preparation, and cooking can help reduce the risks associated with eating the contaminated fish.
Chemical contaminants present in Lake Erie’s surface waters can be magnified in aquatic organisms as they feed, producing concentrations much higher in fish tissue than in the water itself. Human consumption of fish contaminated with harmful chemicals may cause a variety of health problems. The risks of adverse health problems from fish consumption are greatest for those that eat a lot of Great Lakes fish, regularly eat large predator fish, eat fish from highly contaminated waters, or eat a large amount of fish over a short period of time.
Students began to gather information on Lake Erie fish consumption advisories. They found information on ways to prepare fish to help reduce the level of some toxins consumed by removing skin and fatty tissue. Using the information they gathered the students designed a fish advisory brochure, which was first printed in 1999. The students decided to use a character they called “Freddy the Fish” to help spread the message.
While distributing the Freddy the Fish brochures, the students learned that many of those who eat Lake Erie fish to supplement their every day lives did not speak English and would therefore have difficulty in deriving the greatest benefit from the information contained in the Freddy the Fish brochure. This was a problem! The students worked with the local high school Spanish department to translate the brochure into Spanish. Deciding that the brochure should be translated into additional languages as well, they worked with Erie’s International Institute to produce the fish advisory brochure in Bosnian, Vietnamese, and Russian. These ethnic groups are believed to include a high percentage of subsistence anglers on the lake and Bay of Erie.
In September of 1999, fifteen Earth Force youth were invited to present their Freddy the Fish educational project at the biennial meeting of the International Joint Commission (IJC), in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The IJC assists the U.S. and Canada in decisions regarding the lakes and waterways that lie along and between the two countries including the Great Lakes basin. The students attended the meeting of the IJC Commissioners where they learned about problems facing the Great Lakes and possible solutions to these problems.
During the student sessions of the conference the Earth Force students explained the Erie Area Earth Force’s projects, focusing on the Freddy the Fish project. It was at this meeting that the Freddy the Fish character took on a life of his own as a costumed interpreter. With a talking Freddy the Fish character the students have been active in educating the public on fish advisories, the problems both the public and the fish face from having contaminants and pollution in the water, and on watersheds and how pollution in one part of the watershed affects the health of the entire watershed.
While it is important to raise awareness of fish advisories and their value in protecting the public from the adverse health effects of environmental contaminants, the most effective long-term strategy to reduce harmful exposure is to reduce environmental contamination. The Freddy the Fish character has become a sort of mascot for the Erie Area Earth Force. “Freddy” has attended Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings in Erie schools, he has been involved in several of the Earth Force’s annual summits, and spent last summer at Dobbins Landing, a centrally located lakefront walk, passing out brochures and talking to individuals about watersheds and fish contamination.
The goal of the Earth Force students is to make their programs self-sustaining so that as each group of students moves on to the next grade the projects are able to remain effective. The Erie Area Earth Force works to create lasting solutions to environmental problems in the Allegheny watershed. They do this by providing quality materials, training, and ongoing support for educators in order to serve as a bridge between schools and the community. The Freddy the Fish project has been very successful in building this bridge between the schools and the community. Freddy the Fish advisories and posters continue to be widely distributed in the Lake Erie region. Freddy has been an effective means of educating the public on fish contamination and the connection between activities within the watershed and unhealthy fish.