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Assessing Contaminants in Smallmouth Bass

For more information on PCBs, click here tfacts17.html

For more information on mercury, click here tfacts46.html


Mercury Matters (pdf file)

Mercury Update (pdf file)

The contamination of sportfish by local and regional pollution has left its mark on the community of Akwesasne. The task in recent years is to measure how much pollution remains in our fish and what’s safe to eat.

From 2006 - 2007, participants in the Noah Thompson Memorial Fishing derby gave 69 smallmouth bass to the Water Resources Program for chemical analysis. Not surprising, these fish were contaminated with Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). What is surprising is that these bass are also contaminated with the heavy metal mercury.

Fish Derby

PCBs are man-made chemicals—banned by the USEPA since 1977—that were discharged locally from 3 Superfund hazardous waste sites belonging to General Motors and Alcoa. Two of these sites are the in the clean up process and have removed much contaminated river sediment. The third site is the 6.5 miles of the lower Grasse River, which empties PCBs into the St. Lawrence River every day. Clean up of the Grasse River continues to be delayed by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Alcoa.

Mercury is a regional pollutant.
There are some local sources of mercury (such as the now closed Domtar paper mill and the Cornwall wastewater treatment plant), but the scale of mercury pollution is much larger than these sources alone. Virtually every lake, river, and stream in New York State (NYS)—as well as the fish living in it—has measurable amounts of mercury. The source of the pollution in NYS is said to originate from mid-west American states like Ohio. The mercury is released from smoke stacks where coal is burned to create power. The mercury is eventually deposited in our local environment and accumulates in fish and other organisms.

It is important to recognize that mercury, unlike PCBs, occurs naturally in the environment; however, the levels that exist in the environment today are many times greater than what is considered natural.

The Effects of PCBs and mercury
Long term exposure to PCBs can result in liver damage, lowered immune function, and some behavioral changes. They may cause cancer of the liver (and biliary tract); however, this link is not totally clear. The best scientific information concludes that PCBs are probable carcinogens.

Pregnant and nursing women will pass PCBs to their babies, and developing fetuses and children are the most at risk. These risks include low birth weight, lowered mental capacity, and some behavior changes.

Mercury affects the human nervous system. Methylmercury is the most toxic type of mercury and in this study all types of mercury were measured. Humans are very sensitive to mercury because it directly affects the brain, in addition to kidneys and developing fetuses. Mercury is NOT linked to Cancer.

What Levels are safe?
The Food and Drug Administration has a tolerance of 2.0 parts per million (ppm) for PCBs in commercial fish and shellfish and 1.0ppm for mercury. What’s safe to eat depends on how much and how often you eat fish.

Locally caught smallmouth bass are comparable to other commercial fish that have PCBs and mercury. However, that doesn’t mean they can be eaten frequently.

Women whom expect to become pregnant should not consume locally caught smallmouth bass. They can pass PCBs and mercury to their developing babies.

Children should not consume locally caught smallmouth bass; the risk to too great for their developing bodies.

Women no longer having children, and men, can consume locally caught smallmouth bass but with caution. Meals should be 1/2 pound or less and spread out over the year. The risk for women (no longer having children) and men is moderate and they should not consume more than 2 meals per month.

Mercury in smallmouth bass

PCBs in smallmouth bass

Smaller fish generally have less PCBs and mercury. If you must eat fish, choose smaller ones. And don’t eat fish caught near GM, Alcoa, or Domtar. Fish from these areas have many times more contaminants than fish east of Cornwall Island.

Go fishing!
While the risks of consuming fish are scary, so are the risks of eating other things in place of fish. Eating fast food value meals (of burgers, fries, and sodas) more than once a month places you at risk of diabetes, obesity, heart attack and stroke. These are preventable diseases that kill Native people every day.

There are great benefits of consuming fish. There is strong scientific evidence that eating fish oil improves brain and heart function; good to know for people with heart conditions. Fishing and eating fish is ingrained in our history and culture. All large Mohawk settlements have good fishing in common. Fishing is a great family activity and the values that go along with that need to be lived and passed on to the young ones. It’s possible for adults to consume local fish safely—we just need to do it carefully.

Many commercial ocean caught fish are safe to eat for men, woman and children. Visit the Water Resources Program at the SRMT Environment Division office at 449 Frogtown Rd for further information or call us at (518) 358-5937.

The smallmouth bass data is the first large scale effort by the Tribe to evaluate PCBs and mercury reservation wide. Past efforts have been limited to relatively small contaminated sites. Future works of SRMT Water Resources will evaluate the levels of PCBs and mercury in other sportfish like walleye, sturgeon, and perch.