Written by Catherine Semcer, Senior Washington Representative for the Sierra Club Resilient Habitats Campaign
I started fishing when I was 8. I remember my father took me to a lake near our home in New Jersey, baited a hook, and showed me how to cast it into the water. I’ll always remember how proud he was when I reeled in my first sunfish, how he treated it like I had brought a trophy salmon to hand.
Since then, I have been lucky enough to fish from the Arctic to the Rockies to the Appalachians. I still fish with my father as much as I can and often fish with friends that time on the water has blessed me with. For me, our days together — the laughs we share, the playful jabs and celebrations — they are the real trophies, too big to fit in any net. The bonds we share that are tighter than any lines are why I keep fishing, why I share fishing with others, and why I speak up for our nation’s waters.
Unfortunately, there is one very bad part of fishing for millions of anglers nationwide. Fish advisories are in effect for waterways across the U.S., advising people to limit the amount of local fish species they eat due to mercury contamination. Studies suggest that even a gram-sized drop of mercury can contaminate a 20 acre lake.
A potent neurotoxin, mercury gets into our air from coal-fired power plants and then falls into waterways from rain or snow. It then accumulates in fish and the people who eat fish, putting pregnant women and their babies at risk for serious developmental and neurological problems.
For some communities, this threat is even greater. An analysis of several studies conducted among Latinos reveal that this community faces a disproportionate risk from toxic mercury pollution because of a combination of cultural, economic and linguistic factors.
Thirty-one percent of Latinos fish regularly, and 76 percent of those eat and share what they catch with their families. These families include young children and women of childbearing age, the two most vulnerable population sectors to mercury poisoning.
A study conducted by the University of California-Davis titled, “Fishing for Justice or Just Fishing,” revealed that Hispanic anglers fish close to their urban communities because of a lack of transportation options. The fish caught in urban areas tend to contain the highest concentrations of mercury contamination. And this exposure is already showing high levels of mercury contamination among Hispanic anglers.
Thankfully, this month the Environmental Protection Agency will unveil a long overdue update to the Clean Air Act that will strengthen public health protections from coal-fired power plants.
The Sierra Club is celebrating Mercury Awareness Week this week, as President Obama prepares to issue the first nationwide protections against toxic mercury from coal plants. Dozens of events nationwide plus a slew of new resources and tools will help Americans to better understand the dangers of toxic mercury from coal plants and to demonstrate what President Obama can do to protect us from this poison.
Yet despite overwhelming support across the U.S. for safeguards against this toxin, Big Coal and Big Oil are lobbying hard to block these commonsense safeguards.
We need our leaders to protect clean air, soil and water, and to hold polluters accountable. The strong mercury protections that the Obama Administration is expected to release would cut over 90% of toxic mercury from coal-fired power plant pollution, reducing the contamination that leads to unsafe fish.
In the end, it’s ultimately not about the fish, or the beautiful places where we cast our lines – it is about the connections between people that fishing inspires. Let’s keep fishing safe for all families, whether it’s done for food, fun, or both.
Join me in encouraging the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama Administration to stand its ground and move forward with the strongest possible protections against air toxics like mercury. For anglers and our families, it’s the right thing to do.
Photo from ThinkStock