Fresh Water Sports

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Should Fishing Event Owners Be Concerned About Contaminated Water?

11 Dec, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
The Answer: It Depends on the Species of Fish - And What Anglers Will Do with Them Afterwards

When the advisory came out for Baltimore County (one of 24 counties and county equivalents in the state of Maryland), it notified potential anglers they might want to avoid or limit the amount of fish they pull out of certain bodies of water because of contamination from substances such as mercury, PCBs and pesticides.

Problem is, Baltimore County is far from the only place – and Maryland is far from the only state – with this problem. So as fishing tournaments grow in popularity (along with their potential economic impact), where should hosts look for information, in order to keep anglers safe?

While many would prefer to have a convenient national database showing which waters are contaminated and which are safe, the reality is that most of that information is collected and presented at the local, state and regional levels.

So where should potential tournament hosts – and tournament owners – go to obtain the latest information and advisories?

At the national level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a page listing various resources concerning guidelines for safe fish consumption, as well as a list of state contacts but in general, event owners look to the local and regional authorities for the most up-to-date information on water conditions.

“We actually contact the management office for the body of water we are proposing to hold an event on to check for fish populations, water quality, invasive species, etc. prior to setting up an event,” says Darrell Van Vactor, Operations Manager of Crappie USA. “If we don’t know which agency is in charge of the water system, we contact the state DNR (Dept. of National Resources) first. Normally it will be controlled by the state Fish and Wildlife agency.”

When tournaments involve pan fish (crappies being one of those, although there are plenty of others), it is incumbent upon organizers to ascertain the water is safe. This will be also the case for tournaments involving certain invasive species, such as the Northern snakehead, where fish are not thrown back, and where consumption is generally encouraged.

Tournaments where fish are returned to the water after being weighed and/or measured do not have as many concerns in this arena.

“PCB-contaminated fish are only a danger when consuming the fish,” says Joe Opager, director of communications for FLW. “Since all FLW tournaments are catch and release, there is no danger, and thus we do not track PCB warnings.”

Chad Hoover, founder and president of Kayak Bass Fishing, notes that his organization operates similarly. “We catch, photo and release so we don't retain the fish or take tissue samples.” However, he adds, should organizers want to obtain water information, “Most of the state agencies have this data through their departments of game and inland fisheries or through their wildlife agencies.”

B.A.S.S. released a statement from the office of Gene Gilliland, Conservation Director: “As the technology to detect smaller and smaller quantities of contaminants in our waters has improved, more fish populations are screened by state environmental agencies and unfortunately, more fish consumption advisories are being issued to protect human health. Advisories aim to moderate, or in some cases eliminate, consumption of predator fish species such as striped bass and black bass that can bioaccumulate various toxic substances such as mercury, PCBs, pesticides, etc. However, in regard to bass tournament site selection criteria, the vast majority of tournament organizations release all the bass caught in their events (fish are not harvested) so the presence of consumption advisories really does not enter into the decision.”

Many bodies of water additionally have advisories regarding swimming, and open-water swimming event owners must be aware of these as well.

Event owners who are researching historical data and information on whether bodies of water have been the subject of advisories in the past can use the EPA’s data, which includes records compiled from 1993 through 2011, when the EPA collected fish advisory information from states, territories and tribes. That information is now listed in the National Listing of Fish Advisories (NLFA). The NLFA includes fish advisories that were issued by states and territories from 1974 to 2011. 

To find historical fish advisories:

[Note: Some historical advisories may still be in effect.]

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