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MY TURN

Danger lurks at the end of your fishing line

Coal plants make mercury a real risk

It's fishing season in New Hampshire. We are so fortunate to have an abundance of fish to catch. It seems like the opportunities are endless. The state Fish and Game Department stocks a million trout each year. We have about a thousand great lakes and ponds to fish for bass, pickerel, perch, crappy and whatever else you want to fish for. The list seems endless.

Most fishermen and women don't think about the toxic mercury building inside of these fish. Unfortunately many of our fish, especially the non-trout species, are contaminated with mercury.

For many of us catch-and-release fishermen these toxic fish are not a problem.

But, let's face it, there are many who take our fish home to eat, particularly in these tough economic times.

It makes sense to use the food available in all our lakes and streams right in our own back yards. Few realize the hazard of eating some of these fish.

It is the predatory fish that bio-accumulate this neurotoxin. Mercury levels are highest in the fish we would normally be bringing home to eat.

Bass, pickerel and both white and yellow perch have the highest levels of mercury. In fact in 2010 the Department of Environmental Services tested 133 fish from across the state. There were 33 with levels of mercury that constituted a health risk. All were bass, pickerel or perch, except for one lake trout that also tested high.

So 25 percent of the fish tested last year had mercury levels that would put pregnant or nursing women, women who may become pregnant or children under age 7 at risk. The state frequently posts warnings at fishing access sites to our lakes warning folks about the hazard of eating the fish. This same warning list 10 lakes and ponds with such high mercury levels that these same women and children should eat no fish from them.

Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States, accounting for over 50 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions.

This means that coal-fired power plants continue to dump these harmful pollutants into the air that then find their way into the water and into the fish we catch.

To protect our air, water and wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to hold these polluters accountable by implementing commonsense safeguards on power plant emissions.

We have a peculiar approach to managing pollution. Every state has a warning system that issues public advisories about mercury levels in fish. These advisories would be unnecessary if the root cause of the problem, mercury emissions, was addressed.

An across-the-board policy, like the one proposed by the EPA, would ensure that emissions from coal-fired plants in every state would be reduced. Moreover, the standards would level the playing field for industry by ensuring that all plants are meeting the same emissions standards.

Why should outdoor enthusiasts care about mercury in fish?

Consumption of mercury can cause brain damage, learning disabilities in young children, birth defects, damage to the nervous system, kidneys and liver and can even cause cancer. Eating fish is supposed to be good for you; it's not supposed to cause cancer.

Earlier this year, the EPA proposed the first ever standard to lower mercury pollution and other air toxics from power plants. One of the best ways to lower the risks is to send your comments to the EPA about these new standards.

With over 500 coal-fired power plants across the country, the standards can significantly reduce mercury from the largest sources. The National Wildlife Federation has a link to make and send your comments at nwf.org.

(Eric Orff is a wildlife biologist from Epsom. He has been a part-time environmental consultant for the National Wildlife Federation since 2007.)