Guest editorial ...

Catch of the Day: PCB-seasoned fish (with just a touch of mercury)

By Jacqueline Strayer

Could YOU be eating unsafe fish?

With fishing season in full force, many of us forget to stop and check if the fish we are catching and putting on the table are safe to eat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed Muskegon Lake as an Area of Concern in the 1980s, and at the time our lake water quality and the aquatic wildlife living in the lake were polluted and unhealthy, though now through hard work, they are gradually coming back to health.

The Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI) “Restrictions on Fish and Wildlife Consumption” was removed in 2013 when the chemical levels in the fish from Muskegon Lake became comparable to other lakes and rivers in Michigan which are not Areas of Concern. Although “Restrictions on Fish and Wildlife Consumption” on Muskegon Lake was taken down, this does not mean the fish in Muskegon Lake are chemical-free and safe to eat.

In the Water Quality Assessment from the EPA taken from various rivers emptying into Muskegon Lake (and onwards into Lake Michigan), fish consumption is listed as “Impaired” with chlordane, DDT, mercury, and PCBs. Because these chemicals tend to sink to the bottom of water, they settle and become part of the sediment to work their way into the fish food chain. The two most common chemicals found in the tissues of fish from these rivers and Muskegon Lake are PCBs and mercury. PCBs are more adapted to build up in the fat of the fish, while mercury accumulates in the muscle, or filet. And, not only are the fish in Muskegon Lake contaminated with these hazardous chemicals, but ingesting fish full of these toxins could also increase your risk for cancer.

Due to the fish in Muskegon Lake still being contaminated with toxins, there needs to be a push towards making sure citizens fishing on Muskegon Lake are aware of the yearly updated “Eat Safe Fish Guidelines.” One way to promote awareness is by providing the “Southwest Eat Safe Fish Guide” brochure at local stores that supply fishing licenses. Local shops selling fishing licenses and local boat launches could also have yearly updated “Southwest Eat Safe Fish Guide” always on display to raise awareness. (Editor’s note: the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership has held a day-long event in the past at boat launches and works with the State of Michigan to be sure fishing license vendors have eat safe guides.) This offers a way to make information available to the public while also protecting citizens and their families from ingesting unsafe fish.

Muskegon Lake has been an Area of Concern for over four decades, and frankly, this issue will not be solved by itself. To ensure our future fish do not exceed the contaminant standards, we need to rearrange our resources to better fit the restoration plan of Muskegon Lake by allocating more funding towards the removal of the toxic chemicals that are still a part of the sediment – even though many contaminated sediment sites have already been addressed. Raising funding and awareness for restoring Muskegon Lake could be accomplished by having a fund-raising event to educate the public on the restoration plan and provide information of the past and current conditions of Muskegon Lake. Likewise, this could additionally increase donations towards the restoration plan. Furthermore, to achieve the pressing matter of the removal of the remaining pollution and to restore the water quality, we need to advocate for change. Public involvement is an essential part of cleaning up and restoring waters recovering from environmental tragedies. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of the Great Lakes offers a way for you and the community to volunteer with the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership (formerly the Public Advisory Council) to help in the restoration of Muskegon Lake, or you can contact the MLWP directly through the Facebook page or emailing

It has been four decades with this upstream battle, but I think it is about time to reel this problem back in.

Jacqueline Strayer is a Master of Public Health student at Western Michigan University.

(Please note that this publication did not check the accuracy of the specific information about fish contamination, though we verified that the state website does indicate there is still contamination.)