University City

Lake fish may pose threat to consumers

An environmental group continues to be concerned about the large number of people fishing in Lake Wylie despite warnings that harmful chemicals have been found in the fish.

Rick Gaskins, executive director with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, said that what worries him most is the number of people he sees daily fishing on the lake. Even with the warnings, he said, he hasn’t seen the number of fishermen diminish.

“There are a lot of people who are out there every day getting dinner for their families,” Gaskins said. “That’s what scares me the most. They are consuming these toxins regularly.”

The foundation issued the most recent warning on its website in February. That came after a December 2011 alert from the Riverkeepers and the N.C. Division of Public Health urging people who fish regularly in the lake to eat only certain types of fish once a week, and some not at all.

The warning was issued after tests by N.C. toxicologists last year. Various types of fish were found to have elevated levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB.

The fish that pose the greatest threat are largemouth bass and catfish. The warning states that bass consumption should be limited to once every two weeks and that catfish should be avoided.

Catfish and bass are predators that eat other fish and plant life that also have absorbed the toxins.

Gaskins said it’s not as easy as eating the fish only once a week. To avoid the toxins, one must also follow the recommended portion size.

“An adult portion size is six ounces and a child’s is two,” Gaskins said. “I don’t know about you, but my children can eat at least twice that amount. So if a family is only eating the fish once a week but is eating large quantities, the advisory guidelines will have to be followed differently.”

Gaskins said the toxins are stored in the fatty tissue of the fish, so one way to lessen the amount is to cut the fat from the fish before cooking it. He also suggests broiling to allow the drippings and toxins to fall away.

According to the N.C. Division of Public Health, women of child-bearing age, women pregnant or nursing and children younger than 15 should not eat largemouth bass caught in Lake Wylie. Consumption can cause adverse effects on the reproductive system and the immune system and could cause cancer.

In children, the toxins could negatively affect neurological development and the way they think, learn and solve problems as they grow older.

“It’s dangerous and needs to be taken seriously,” said Gaskins. “We need to make as many people aware of this as possible.”

Mercury and PCBs are widespread contaminants of fish in U.S. waters, and it’s unclear where it all has come from. However, Gaskins points to the Duke Energy Catawba Nuclear Station, which is on the South Carolina side of Lake Wylie.

He also said mercury is emitted into the air, and because of its high density it falls from the atmosphere into the water.

A Duke Energy representative pointed out that Duke has worked to control emissions from its facilities.

“Duke Energy has invested more than $5 billion across our system in air quality controls, such as scrubbers, in the last 10 years. This has dramatically reduced the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emitted from our larger stations,” said Erin Culbert, a corporate spokeswoman for Duke Energy.

“Marshall (Lake Norman) and Allen (Lake Wylie) steam stations on the Catawba have this technology.”

The scrubbers do an excellent job of removing the oxidized mercury that would be more likely to be deposited locally, Culbert said. To identify the nearest coal station as the automatic source of any mercury detected locally does not reflect the true nature of how mercury is deposited, she said.

“In terms of outreach, our Lake Services group was the one who actually produced the signage and posted the advisory on the three public recreation access areas Duke manages on the North Carolina side of Wylie, based on language the state provided,” said Culbert.

“The Lake Wylie advisory speaks mostly to PCBs, which … is not related to coal combustion at all. North Carolina has a statewide mercury advisory, which applies to any water body regardless of the presence of coal stations or whether fish in that water body actually have elevated mercury levels.”