Eat or not to eat?

robNhood

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By Tim Renken
Of the Post-Dispatch
07/12/2001 08:40 PM



There was more good news than bad in Monday's release from the Missouri Department of Health on eating fish.

The bad was a very limited advisory against eating large largemouth bass because of mercury contamination. Only children under age 13 and women who are nursing or pregnant or who might become pregnant soon were included in the advisory. And they were advised to avoid just bass larger than 12 inches. Largemouth bass of any size were deemed safe for everyone else.

The good news was that health authorities at the same time lifted the advisory against eating more than one meal a week of catfish, carp, buffalo, drum, suckers and paddlefish caught from state waters outside of the Ozarks region because of chlordane. That advisory had involved everybody.

Catfish, carp, buffalo, etc., from most Ozarks waters always have been deemed safe to eat.

As a sport fish, largemouth bass are No. 1 in the South and Midwest. As a food fish, though, largemouth bass are not important. Serious bass anglers never eat them, regarding them as too valuable to kill because of their sporting qualities. Most fish epicures regard large largemouth as mediocre at best.

Small largemouth, 10 inches or less, are regarded as better fare, though many anglers release them alive in hopes that they will grow to become trophies.

It's illegal to sell largemouth bass meat in Missouri and Illinois.

Most bass in Missouri's waters are less than 12 inches long because most largemouth live less than two years. It takes, typically, two years for a largemouth to grow to 12 inches.

Catfish, on the other hand, are important both as a sport fish and a food fish. Among recreational anglers it ranks in the top five in both Missouri and Illinois. As a food fish, the channel cat is No. 1, with more than 600 million pounds raised each year by commercial hatcheries and thousands more being caught from almost every water in both states.

Carp, drum, buffalo and suckers are less important as sport fish but quite important as food fish, with thousands of pounds netted and trapped each year, mostly from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and sold in fish markets.

Only large bass are in the advisory because only large bass have lived long enough to accumulate enough mercury to detect.

Illinois has issued no statewide advisory on eating bass. Illinois bass presumably have the same mercury levels, but health officials observe different standards.

Where does this mercury come from? Scientists don't really know. Nor do they know whether it is increasing or decreasing in the environment. It may always have been present. The only thing that has changed is the knowledge about how it affects children.

The advisory on chlordane, on the other hand, indicates that contamination by this pesticide in Missouri's waters is declining. Its use in termite control was banned in 1988. The fish advisory was issued in 1985.

Among the many things I find puzzling about this whole mercury-in-fish matter is why only largemouth bass are mentioned. What about spotted and smallmouth bass, which swim in the same water and eat the same forage? Or crappie, for that matter? None of these fishes was included in the new advisory
 

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