In this February 2020 photo, Zach Pond resets his ice fishing trap at Pushaw Lake. The annual ice fishing derby to be held Saturday and Sunday also will allow anglers to donate samples of their fish to study mercury levels. Credit: Courtesy of Terry Ferren

Anglers at the Pushaw Lake Ice Fishing Derby this weekend have a special opportunity to provide some important scientific data.

Pushaw Lake is known for a variety of warm water species including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, yellow and white perch, pickerel and northern pike.

But fish caught in the Pushaw waters have not been tested for mercury since 2011, when the Maine Department of Environmental Protection sampled white perch only. The study found that 90 percent of the fish contained a level of total mercury in muscle tissue that exceeded the state’s action level, 200 parts per billion.

This year’s derby will provide new data on the fish in Pushaw Lake. Maine is one of 27 states that have statewide fish consumption advisories in place to address mercury contamination, with the state’s first advisory issued in 1994. Mercury is a health hazard, particularly for pregnant and nursing mothers, women who expect to become pregnant, and children under 8.

Mercury is present in freshwater fish not only in Maine, but also around New England and across the U.S. It is a byproduct of power plants and other industries that release mercury into the air, only for it to settle back to earth and into soil, lakes and streams.

When people eat freshwater fish, 95 percent of the mercury they ingest is absorbed into their bodies, said Dianne Kopec, president of the Kukunsook Camp Owners Association.

“Figuring what’s going on currently in our lake, that could create some broad baseline information that would allow us to test at some point a couple years from now and see are the numbers going down,” said Kopec, who also is a research fellow at the University of Maine’s Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, where her efforts concentrate on the impact of the toxic metal.

So knowing mercury is present in Maine freshwater fish is one thing, but understanding the potential dangers and the state’s guidance on consumption of those fish is critical.

Kopec wants to make sure residents are aware they should limit their intake of most fish.

“We really want to emphasize that fish are incredibly healthy to eat, especially for pregnant women and young children,” Kopec said. “But you have to choose what species of fish you eat because the level of mercury in the fish changes from species to species.”

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife continues to issue advisories to help protect vulnerable populations. The state recommends higher-risk groups should eat only brook trout, landlocked salmon and smelts, which are considered safer because of lower mercury levels, but should have only one meal per month.

All other adults and children 8 and older can eat two freshwater fish meals per month. For salmon and brook trout, the guideline is one meal per week.

Volunteers representing the Greater Pushaw Lake Association and the Kukunsook Camp Owners Association will be taking samples of fish harvested from Pushaw Lake and Little Pushaw Pond to test for the presence of mercury.

The event is organized by the Pushaw Lake Snowmobile Club.

Fish caught and taken to the derby weighing station at the Pushaw Lake Snowmobile Club, 243 Whitmore Landing Road in Hudson, will be sampled with anglers’ permission. The station will be open from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

“I’ll be there with a scalpel and we just take a small chunk of the muscle right below the dorsal fin,” Kopec said.

Collecting data that can shed more light on the mercury levels in fish in Pushaw Lake and Little Pushaw Pond, and getting the message out about the dangers of eating food contaminated with mercury, are important steps in combating the issue.

“There’s things that can be done to fix it, but while it’s a problem, folks need to be aware of it so that they don’t ingest more than is safe to eat,” Kopec said.

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...