Fish & Wildlife | Water | Ecotrope

Testing: How Toxic Is This Fisherman's Catch?

Ecotrope | June 6, 2012 10:26 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:31 p.m.

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Greg Short of Hood River fishes for small-mouth bass in the Columbia River every spring. He keeps some and fries them up for "some good eats" and he releases some too. Today, he gave one of his fish to Columbia Riverkeeper so it can be tested for toxins in a lab in Wisconsin. In a few weeks he'll find out how many toxins he would've ingested had he eaten the fish.

Greg Short of Hood River fishes for small-mouth bass in the Columbia River every spring. He keeps some and fries them up for "some good eats" and he releases some too. Today, he gave one of his fish to Columbia Riverkeeper so it can be tested for toxins in a lab in Wisconsin. In a few weeks he'll find out how many toxins he would've ingested had he eaten the fish.

I went fishing with Hood River native Greg Short this morning and Lorri Epstein of Columbia Riverkeeper.

Short took us out on the Columbia to fish for small-mouth bass as he does every spring.

Unlike salmon and steelhead, which he also fishes, bass are full-time residents of the Columbia River. That means they have a lot more time to absorb toxins in the water and to consume them through the critters they eat.

Studies have shown higher levels of toxins in some fish in the Columbia River, but not explicitly in the stretch of the river Short fishes.

As he explains in the rough cut of sound from this morning’s fishing trip below, there are health advisories for fish in the lower river but no readily available data about toxins in the fish he catches.

So, he agreed to go fishing and have one of his bass tested for toxic metals, the industrial chemical PCB (polychlorinated biphenal) and flame retardants.

He caught what he estimated to be a five- or six-year-old bass in a fishing hole he calls “Beer Batter Bay.” You can pretty much expect to catch a bass in there, he said, so have the beer batter ready.

One of the goals of the Clean Water Act is to protect fish and public health from harmful water pollution. As the Act turns 40 this year, Ecotrope, EarthFix and InvestigateWest are examining how well the landmark law is working.

This map shows all the places in Oregon where fish consumption advisories warn anglers not to eat too much of a particular fish. For the most part, the warnings apply to resident fish that live in polluted water and accumulate contaminants in their tissue over time. Click on the map for a larger, interactive version.

This map shows all the places in Oregon where fish consumption advisories warn anglers not to eat too much of a particular fish. For the most part, the warnings apply to resident fish that live in polluted water and accumulate contaminants in their tissue over time. Click on the map for a larger, interactive version.

Epstein said the putting out health advisories for fish that have elevated levels of toxins isn’t protective enough. Some people don’t see the advisories or they eat the fish anyway because they want the food.

“We all have the right to catch and eat fish without fear of getting sick,” she said. “The Clean Water Act protects that right, so we need to be doing enough to protect that right and make sure that we are able to eat those fish without getting sick.”

The test results on Short’s bass won’t be ready for a couple weeks. But they might confirm what scientists are finding elsewhere about the contaminants that accumulate in fish tissue.

The state of Oregon recently approved a new set of water quality standards that are designed to lower the levels of toxins in fish so people who regularly eat lots of fish can do so safely. But it isn’t clear yet how regulators are going to enforce the new rules.

Meanwhile, new technology allows scientists to detect emerging contaminants at very low levels using a substance that accumulates toxins like fish tissue does. But scientists say they don’t know whether the new toxins they’re finding pose a threat to human health at such low levels.

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