News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 13, 2006

Illinois agency says fish in Wabash River high in mercury

By Patricia L. Pastore

The Wabash River has been added to a list of bodies of water in Illinois with a fish consumption advisory because of mercury levels.

The Illinois Department of Public Health added the river and its tributaries to its list of 15 such rivers and lakes in Illinois, said Melaney Arnold, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Beginning in southern Vigo County, the Wabash River separates the boundaries of Indiana and Illinois as it runs south along Clark and Crawford counties and beyond.

Women of childbearing age, children 15 and under, pregnant women, fetuses and nursing mothers should limit sauger larger than 12 inches from the Wabash River and tributaries to one meal per month. Other fish in the Wabash River should be limited to one meal per week for those who are not on the sensitive list because of the elevated levels of methylmercury, she said.

“Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and it can be released into the air through industrial pollution,” according to the Illinois Health Department advisory. “When it falls into surface water, bacteria in the water cause chemical changes that transform the mercury into methylmercury, which is then taken up by fish as they feed on aquatic organisms.”

Indiana State Conservation Office Kent Hutchins said similar advisories are in effect in Indiana. He said consumption advisories about fish taken from the entire length of the Wabash River are noted in the Department of Natural Resources fishing regulations.

“The fish have contaminants and heavy metals which include mercury,” he said. “The Indiana Public Health Department tests the waterways on a regular schedule.”

For the most part, Illinois anglers won’t change their fishing habits because of the advisory, said Mike Mounce, district fish biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He said a few fishermen will be more selective in what they harvest.

“Large fish are more likely to have a higher level of mercury in them than smaller fish that are legal to take,” Mounce said. “Fish predators like largemouth bass, channel catfish, blue catfish and striped bass also have a higher level of mercury. “

The new advisories that include the Wabash River won’t change Jerry Pipkins’ fishing plans and it won’t change the amount of fish he consumes.

“I’m 66 and I don’t worry a lot about the mercury and other contaminants,” Pipkins said Friday. “I’ve fished rivers all of my life and fished the Wabash since 1986. I’ll continue to fish and eat the fish I catch in the Wabash.”

Pipkins fishes the Wabash River both north and south of his rural Hutsonville home.

He runs trout lines daily, does a bit of pole bank fishing and enjoys using a spinning reel, too. His target is catfish.

“I do provide my family and some friends with various type of catfish,” he said. “About two years ago, I caught a 63-pound flat-head catfish. After that, people thought I was an expert fisherman.”

The advisories aren’t intended to discourage people from eating fish and should be used as a guideline to help “anglers and their families decide where to fish, the types of fish to eat … ,” said Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, state public health director, in a news release.

“Fish can be an important part of a balanced diet,” he said. “It is a good source of high quality protein and other nutrients and is low in fat. But the public needs to be aware of the fact that contaminants in fish in some of our bodies of water may make some fish unsafe except in limited quantities, particularly for women of childbearing age and young children.”

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently announced a proposal to cut mercury emissions from Illinois power plants by 90 percent by June 30, 2009, the advisory said.

“Mercury emissions come from any coal-burning plant, such as power plants, that issue emissions, Arnold said. “Fish feed on those emissions in the rivers and it accumulates in the fishes’ systems and the fish flesh that is eaten.”

Nothing will change the way Pipkins fishes the river.

“I may think a bit differently than others,” Pipkins said, “My smoking is probably more harmful than the fish I eat… There is nothing like fishing on a river and eating fresh fish.”

Patricia Pastore can be reached at (812) 231-4271 or pat.pastore@tribstar.com.

Summing it up

--Samples by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program caused 15 bodies of water to be placed on the special mercury advisory.

--For a list of rivers and lakes, go to: www.idph.state.il.us.

--To learn more about Indiana fish contamination advisories, go to www.dnr.in.gov.

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health news release. Indiana State conservation Officer Kent Hutchins.