Fishing for Trouble: How Toxic Mercury Contaminates Fish in U.S. Waterways

Toxic mercury, largely emitted from coalburning power plants, is polluting waterways, contaminating the fish we eat, and posing a serious threat to public health. 


Environment Colorado

Executive Summary

Toxic mercury, largely emitted from coalburning power plants, is polluting waterways, contaminating the fish we eat, and posing a serious threat to public health. State and tribal health departments issue fish consumption advisories in order to warn people to limit or avoid consumption of contaminated fish species from local rivers, lakes, and other waterbodies. This report details the active fish consumption advisories issued by the states in 2003 due to mercury pollution in local waterways and finds that fish in a large percentage of America’s lakes, rivers, and coastal waters are not safe for unlimited consumption.

Mercury is a dangerous toxic metal, especially for children. Exposure to mercury can cause attention and language deficits, impaired memory, and impaired visual and motor function in children. Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that one in six women of childbearing age in the U.S. has levels of mercury in her blood sufficiently high to put 630,000 of the four million babies born each year at risk of health problems due to mercury exposure.

Our analysis of EPA data on state fish consumption advisories reveals that mercury advisories cover a greater area than ever before. In 2003, 44 states had active mercury consumption advisories for local waterways compared with only 27 states in 1993 and 39 states in 1997. This is a 63% increase in 11 years. The precipitous increase in mercury advisories over the last decade demonstrates that mercury is pervasive in our environment. As EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt has said, “The more waters we monitor, the more we find mercury….” *

Statewide Advisories 
More and more states are issuing statewide advisories, or advisories covering all of their inland freshwater lakes and/or rivers for at least one species of fish. In 2003, 21 states issued statewide advisories for their inland lakes and/or rivers (Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin). New to this list are Montana and Washington, which for the first time in 2003 issued statewide advisories for all inland waterways, and Wisconsin, which added a statewide advisory on all of its rivers.

Advisories on Our Lakes 
A growing number of our nation’s lakes are under mercury advisory. In 2003:

• Active mercury advisories covered at least 13.1 million acres of lakes (including statewide advisories), or 32% of all lake acres. The number of lake acres under advisory for mercury increased by 6%, up from at least 12.4 million acres in 2002.

• Ten states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, and Washington) increased the extent of their lakes under advisory.

• Nine states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Carolina) issued additional consumption restrictions for their lakes, strengthening advisories already in place by adding a new fish to the advisory, warning more people to limit their fish consumption, or advising people to eat less of the fish under advisory.

• Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have mercury advisories covering the Great Lakes and connecting waterways. These advisories cover 2,334 miles of Great Lake coasts and connecting rivers and estuaries on Lake Erie, Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

Advisories on Our Rivers
States are issuing advisories covering more and more miles of our rivers. In 2003:

• Active mercury advisories covered at least 767,000 miles of river (including statewide advisories), or 22% of all river miles. The number of river miles under advisory for mercury increased by 67%, up from at least 458,000 miles in 2002.

• Nine states (California, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin) increased the extent of their rivers under advisory.

• Eight states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, and South Carolina) issued additional consumption restrictions for their rivers, strengthening advisories already in place.

Advisories on Our Coasts 
Much of our nation’s coastline is covered by fish consumption advisories for mercury. In 2003:

• Hawaii issued a statewide advisory covering all 930 miles of its coast; in total, 16,569 miles of our nation’s coastlines were covered by mercury advisories in 2003.

• Fish consumption advisories for mercury and other contaminants cover more than 70% of the coastal waters of the contiguous 48 states. EPA estimates that 92% of the Atlantic coast and 100% of the Gulf coast was under advisory in 2003.

• Twelve states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas) have issued statewide mercury advisories for their entire coastal areas for at least one species of fish. In Maine, a tribal advisory for mercury covers all fish and lobster along the state’s coast.

• Six states (California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Washington) have issued specific estuarine advisories for mercury.

Public Lands under Advisory 
A number of our country’s public lands, which include some of the most scenic and wild places in the U.S., also have fish consumption advisories for mercury. Not including waterways under statewide advisories on publicly protected lands, Arkansas, New Jersey, and Florida have specific fish consumption advisories that apply to waters in national parks, wildlife refuges, and reserves. Massachusetts has a fishing advisory that applies to a river in a national heritage corridor. Florida and Kentucky also have advisories on state-protected lands.

Threat to Recreational Fishing 
Mercury contamination threatens recreational fishing, a time-honored American pastime that is vital to our national and state economies. Studies indicate that fish consumption advisories cause many anglers to reduce the number of days they fish, choose other locations to fish, and take fewer overall fishing trips. Even a small dent in the recreational fishing industry could mean large economic losses. According to the American Sportfishing Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Service, $35.6 billion in expenditures in 2001. Of all the money spent on fishing, close to $28 billion was spent in states that have active fish consumption advisories for mercury.

Addressing the Problem at the Source 
To protect public health, preserve a critical part of our diet, and ensure the survival of an important American pastime, we need to dramatically cut the amount of mercury released into our environment by reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Power plants are the only major mercury polluters yet to be regulated under federal clean air standards. As a result, they are responsible for the lion’s share of U.S. mercury emissions.

The Clean Air Act requires each and every power plant, within three years, to reduce mercury and other hazardous air pollutants to levels attainable under a “maximum achievable control technology” (MACT) standard – requiring reductions to levels currently achieved by the best performing plants. Using existing technologies, power plants can reduce mercury emissions by at least 90%. This would bring power plant mercury emissions down from nearly 50 tons per year to roughly five tons per year by 2008.

Unfortunately, in January 2004, the Bush administration issued a proposal that would not come close to achieving the maximum reductions in mercury emissions required by the Clean Air Act and necessary to protect public health. The Bush administration’s proposal abandons the MACT approach, enabling power plants to emit six to seven times more mercury emissions than allowed under the Clean Air Act over the next decade. This means that the Bush administration’s plan postpones meaningful mercury reductions until 2018, at the earliest. Moreover, the proposal allows facilities to buy mercury pollution credits from facilities located far away instead of reducing their own emissions, thus increasing the risk of creating and exacerbating “toxic hotspots,” or areas with high levels of mercury deposition.

The Bush administration should abandon its mercury-trading proposal and faithfully implement the Clean Air Act by finalizing a MACT rule that reduces mercury emissions from power plants by at least 90% from existing levels by 2008.

* Michael Janofsky, “E.P.A. Says Mercury Taints Fish Across U.S.,” New York Times, 25 August 2004.