With all due apologies to Dave Barry, an “alert reader” left me a telephone message earlier this week to report that four swimming beaches, including the one at Truman State Park, have been closed.
He then asked if anglers should be concerned about eating fish taken from the impacted bodies of water.
A good question, if ever I heard one. I began my research by doing some fact checking.
According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the public swimming beaches at Finger Lakes near Columbia, Harry S. Truman State Park near Warsaw, Wakonda State Park near La Grange and Thousand Hills State Park near Kirksville have been closed due to “high levels of bacteria.”
(Please note that this information was accurate as of July 10. Beaches and other public facilities can be opened or closed with little or no advance notice.)
Whenever I need an answer to a fishy question, I turn to Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologist Trish Yasger. She began by telling me the bacteria in question were one or more of the many species of E. coli.
This important bit of information — which the DNR announcement had omitted — was comforting, because E. coli isn’t found in a fish’s muscle tissue, with the highly unlikely possible exception of a fish with a compromised immune system.
It’s wise to cook fish thoroughly to eliminate any possibility of E. coli contamination.
But before I could sound the all clear, Trish pointed out that dangerously high concentrations of E. coli can be found in water far from a swimming beach’s marker buoys.
What angler hasn’t washed the fish smell off his hands by giving them a quick slosh in the lake and then eaten a sandwich or a handful of chips? E. coli may not be a serious concern for people who eat fish, but perhaps bacteria should be at least a little more of a concern for people who go fishing.
Chemicals do find their way into the edible portions of fish.
To make matters worse, the ill effects of many of these chemicals are cumulative, which means that, every time a fish — or a human — ingests one of these chemicals it remains within its body permanently.
Both federal and state scientists take the potential human health hazards associated with chemical contamination of the nation’s lakes and streams seriously.
Annually updated advisories, which provide the maximum frequency specific species of fish from specific bodies of water in each state should be eaten, are available on the Internet or directly from state public health or fisheries management agencies.
I most definitely recommend that anyone who eats fish not only obtain a copy of their state’s current advisory but also consider its advice on consumption frequency to be an absolute maximum.
For example, “in the absence of a local advisory,” federal officials recommend that sensitive populations (pregnant women, women of childbearing age, nursing mothers and children younger than 13) consume no more than one meal of fish per week due to all but universal mercury contamination.
In all Missouri water bodies, members of the sensitive population should eat no more than one meal of black bass or walleye per month due to mercury.
In Clearwater Lake, white bass more than 15 inches in length are also on the once-a-month list due to mercury.
Mercury, PCBs and chlordane — a pesticide that’s been off the retail market for decades — put sturgeon eggs taken from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers on the do-not-eat list for all consumers.
Shovelnose sturgeon from these same waters should be eaten no more than once a month, and both catfish and carp no more than once a week.
Missouri’s 2013 Fish Advisory includes one-meal-per-month limitations on the Blue River in Jackson County and Simpson Lake in St. Louis County due to contamination from PCBs, chlordane and, in Simpson Lake, mercury.
Contamination from naturally occurring lead brought to the surface by mining activity is responsible for putting several popular fish species on the do-not-eat list in several streams in southeastern Missouri, including the Big River, the Flat River and Big Creek.
To return to where we began, it’s safe to enjoy eating fish caught from bodies of water that E. coli bacteria have made unsafe for swimmers, but don’t drink even the tiniest amount of the water.