By Peter H. Milliken
As the spring fishing season approaches, anglers who eat the fish they catch in the Mahoning River will have reduced health risks to worry about, according to the state’s environmental quality watchdogs.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has removed all Mahoning River fish from its “Do Not Eat” list this year, but the agency still advises consumption frequency limits for fish caught in that river and in Mosquito Creek.
“It shows that there’s been an improvement in water quality,” said Linda Fee Oros, an OEPA spokeswoman.
“The fishing is superb in much of the Mahoning River. What remains, however, are the PCBs and heavy metals in the bottom sediment,” said Jack Wollitz, The Vindicator’s weekly fishing columnist.
“The water itself is clean. The problem is in the bottom muck.”
The “Do Not Eat” advisory for the Mahoning River had been in effect since 1988, so the significance of its cancellation “is huge,” said Stephanie Dyer, environmental program manager at the Youngstown-based Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.
“Environmentally, this is a good indication the river is making a comeback,” Dyer added.
In sharp contrast to the fish with tumors caught in 1994, OEPA biologists caught healthy walleye, pike and muskie in the summer 2013 in the lower Mahoning River and its tributaries, Dyer noted.
The Mahoning River advisories apply from Rockhill Avenue in Alliance to the Ohio-Pennsylvania line.
For small-mouth bass, the OEPA’s new recommended limit is one meal per month, regardless of size, due to PCB and mercury contamination from past industrial pollution.
The agency previously had advised a limit of one meal every two months for small-mouth bass under 15 inches long and not eating any of those fish more than 15 inches.
The new recommended channel catfish limit is one meal every two months for all sizes due to PCB contamination.
The OEPA had previously urged against eating any of those fish that exceeded 21 inches.
Larger fish typically ingest and concentrate more pollutants in their tissues than smaller fish, Oros said, explaining the “Do Not Eat” advisories that earlier applied to larger fish.
OEPA has a stronger advisory concerning channel catfish than other fish because the catfish are bottom feeders, which tend to have more concentrated contaminants in their tissues, Oros said.
That’s because pollutants, such as PCBs, tend to settle and remain in the silt on the waterway floor, she added.
Anglers “can interpret the OEPA’s decision as a sign that it’s worth going fishing in the Mahoning River,” Wollitz said.
He added, however, that dredging is the only guaranteed way to rid a river or creek bed of long-lasting PCBs.
Cancer-causing PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls used in electrical and hydraulic applications, which were made in the United States from 1929 until their manufacture was banned in 1979, according to the U.S. EPA.
Another OEPA-recommended limit for Mahoning River fish is one meal per week for large-mouth bass.
Anglers are advised to eat just one meal per month of river northern pike, rock bass and bluegill and one meal a week of yellow perch due to PCB concerns.
River walleye should be restricted to one meal a month due to mercury and PCB contamination.
In Trumbull County, Mosquito Creek anglers should limit themselves to one bluegill meal a week due to PCBs, the agency said.
One meal a month is the recommended limit for northern pike and common carp caught in that creek due to mercury and PCB contamination, respectively, OEPA said.
Dyer warned those who might choose to ignore the suggested consumption frequency limits that it takes six or more years for the human body to rid itself of PCBs and up to one year for methyl mercury.
Fish with high mercury levels have been shown to cause neurological damage and impaired development in young children, the agency said.