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Lake Norman fish tainted, officials warn

Striped bass feared to be contaminated with PCBs

By Bruce Henderson and Joe Marusak
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

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  • Fish-consumption warnings

    Lake Norman: The state recommends that pregnant and nursing women, women who might become pregnant, and children under 15 not eat striped bass or largemouth bass caught in Lake Norman. Other people should eat no more than two meals a month of largemouth bass and one meal a week of striped bass.

    Mountain Island Lake: The health division recommends that no one eat channel catfish from Mountain Island. Pregnant or nursing women and children should not eat blue catfish or largemouth bass. Others should not eat more than two meals a month of largemouth bass or more than one meal a month of blue catfish.



North Carolina health officials Tuesday issued the first fish-consumption advisory for Lake Norman, warning the public of striped bass tainted by chemicals known as PCBs.

Striper fishing is a popular sport on Lake Norman, the state’s largest manmade body of water. Most fishermen – but not all – release their catch.

The concern is with Latino fishermen who are more likely to eat striped bass at home, said Ron Shoultz, executive director of the Lake Norman Marine Commission.

The state plans to have Spanish speakers visit fishermen at bridges and other popular fishing spots on the lake to warn of the ban, he said, and hold public information sessions.

“We don’t know for sure (what’s causing the elevated PCB levels), and anybody who can tell you definitely is making it up,” Shoultz said. “PCBs are prevalent in every body of water in the United States.”

The state issued PCB-contamination fish advisories for Mountain Island Lake in January 2011 and in the North Carolina portion of Lake Wylie in December 2011. At that time, authorities gave Lake Norman a clean bill of health.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used for decades to insulate and lubricate a vast range of products – from electrical transformers and capacitors to caulk and paint still found in old buildings. They don’t go away once the products do, leaving a long-lasting toxic impact.

Ingested in large doses, PCBs can hurt the neurological development of children, the reproductive and immune systems, and may cause cancer. The chemicals can also put at risk brain development in the unborn babies of pregnant women who eat contaminated fish.

The contamination doesn’t make the water itself unsafe, health officials say.

Striped bass – or stripers – are stocked in Lake Norman for fishermen.

Sam Perkins, technical programs director for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, said it’s interesting that the fish still accumulated potentially unsafe levels of PCBs.

“Lake Norman is not a lake where you would expect to find these contaminants,” he said. “It’s not the biggest shock, but it’s still surprising given the size of the lake and its youngness.”

Lake Norman was filled in 1963, not long before the United States banned PCB use in 1979. Its shores were not lined with industries that might have been sources of the contaminant. And because it covers 32,475 surface acres, Lake Norman has enough water to dilute most contaminants.

The N.C. Division of Public Health included in its advisory largemouth bass, which have been found to be contaminated by potentially toxic mercury in waters statewide.

In addition to the Lake Norman advisory, public health officials updated an existing fish consumption advisory for Mountain Island Lake. A PCB advisory for channel catfish, released in January 2011, now includes blue catfish.

The days of striped bass in Lake Norman appear to be numbered, Shoultz said. In January, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said it will begin stocking the lake with hybrid bass rather than striped bass.

Christian Waters, fisheries program manager for the commission’s Division of Inland Fisheries, said the state will annually stock the lake with 162,500 hybrid bass beginning this year.

The state concluded what fishermen have said for years: Hybrids survive the lake’s summer temperatures far better than striped bass, which have died by the thousands in some recent summers.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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