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State agencies sending mixed messages to recreational anglers

Apr 29, 2013

Publication | Research Brief | Livable Future Blog

Government agencies often give the public mixed messages about recreational fishing and the safety of consuming what we catch, according to a study authored by David Love, Ph.D., and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

State agencies that oversee resource management might give the go-ahead for anglers to catch a certain species of fish, while the same state’s health agency warns that the same species is unsafe to eat. A lack of communication between the agencies leads to conflicting advisories, which are published in separate places.

Such mixed messaging “on which recreationally caught fish were safe to catch versus which were safe to eat were not uncommon,” according to the research, published in the current issue of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. “When catch regulations indicated a species was ‘safe to catch,’ 70% of consumption advisories recommended that anglers limit or not consume that same species if caught in state waters.”

Consumption advisories are of critical public health importance because, as the authors point out, “there are fewer regulatory safeguards to protect individuals who consume self-caught seafood than exist for consumers of commercially-available seafood.” In addition, people who catch fish consume about twice as much seafood as the national average.

Consumption advisories are commonly issued when fish are found to contain unsafe concentrations of PCBs, mercury, dioxins, or occasionally because they contain insecticides, including some that are now banned but persist in the environment.

States such as Arkansas, Georgia and Oregon might be good models of collaboration for other states to emulate, according to the authors. Arkansas, for example, presents consumption advisories and catch regulations together on one page, listing them by water body.

Forty-seven states put out a guide for recreational fishers, but only 22 of those guides provide detailed information about fish consumption, the study reported. Fifteen state fishing guides offered no information about fish consumption, while 10 others had only general information that was not linked to any particular species or water body.

Effective health advisories on fish are a food justice issue, the authors say, since subsistence fishers and their families, who may be dependent on fishing for adequate protein, may face greater exposure to environmental chemicals that bioaccumulate in seafood and hence disproportionate health risks.

The Johns Hopkins researchers suggest states create public policies that would require inter-agency collaboration on fish advisories to “better protect fishers and others from consuming contaminated seafood.”