Mainers don’t have a clear idea of how many so-called forever chemicals are in the freshwater fish they’re eating.
Yet even with the looming threat of expanded consumption advisories to protect public health, many of the state’s anglers continue to eat some of the fish they harvest.
Sammy Muncey, a Registered Maine Guide from Lincoln, didn’t mince words on the subject.
“No concerns. I eat it all year round; never had it affect me in any way,” he said.
Freshwater fish are the latest natural food source in Maine found to be contaminated with perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals, also known as PFAS, have been discovered in well water on and around Maine farms in Fairfield, where even white-tailed deer are now contaminated. But with no state guidance yet in place for the consumption of freshwater fish, and given that most anglers eat modest amounts of them, many feel relatively safe continuing to eat at least some fish taken from Maine waters.
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“I’m primarily a catch-and-release fisherman but do keep and eat fish a few times a year,” said Scott Wright of Readfield.
“I know there have been warnings about how much to eat certain fish for years, but it’s getting a lot more attention now.”
With methylmercury levels previously detected in fish across the state, and corresponding consumption advisories already in place for nearly 30 years, there is concern about how PFAS in fish might complicate the issue.
That level of attention is expected to intensify in the coming months and years as more fish — many of which already contain elevated levels of mercury — are tested for PFAS.
Currently, the state’s safety threshold for PFAS in fish — the level of contamination at which the state warns people against consumption — is 34 parts PFAS per billion. The state is weighing whether to lower that threshold to three or four parts per billion.
Joe Porada of Hancock, who owns Acadia Bays Clam and Oyster, said the remaining unknowns make it hard to draw conclusions about whether to eat freshwater fish, or how much.
“To me it’s not really valuable to see how people are feeling and thinking without having the science behind it,” Porada said.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection plans to test many of the sites where septic sludge was spread on farm fields. The Fairfield area has been confirmed as a PFAS hotspot, where the chemicals are present in well water and have been found in white-tailed deer by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
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“This also depends on the proximity of a particular body of water and the conditions along the watershed,” Porada offered, pointing out the levels likely will vary widely based on those factors.
“I don’t know the extent of PFAS ‘up country,’ but I would assume the Allagash to be cleaner than the Kennebec watershed and surrounding [areas],” he said.
Some anglers downplay the potential issues with PFAS based on their own relatively limited fish consumption. Sarah Cary of Wilton said she eats freshwater fish approximately once every two weeks.
“I eat a pretty typical American diet that’s probably full of chemicals I shouldn’t eat anyway,” Cary said. “Perhaps I should worry more, but I enjoy catching my own food.”
Fisherman Sean Michaud lives in central Maine and has a similar take on what he considers a reasonable and safe amount of fish for him to eat.
For example, Michaud tries to limit exposure by consuming fish caught from waters that are less likely to be tainted with PFAS, such as coldwater lakes compared with industrial rivers.
“I do enjoy an occasional brook trout and salmon caught, [but] I don’t consume enough of them for me to worry about it, in my opinion,” Michaud said.
Michaud and Cary pointed to the numerous other substances people already put into their bodies as being worthy of similar concern.
“I feel like a lot of things us humans consume on a daily basis are just as bad or worse than some possibly tainted meat from game fish,” Michaud said.
For other anglers, the ability to put fish on the dinner table without having to buy it at the grocery store is a huge incentive.
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Gregory Patenaude of Roxbury eats only a few salmon, trout and smelts, but said he does have a favorite freshwater eating fish.
“The crappie are on the top of my list of table fare by far,” he said, noting the lower amount of toxins in the fish and the fact there is no bag limit on them.
Black crappie has been found to contain some of the lowest levels of mercury among freshwater fish. That’s due in part to the fact they grow rapidly during the first two or three years by eating mostly zooplankton.
“I put 25 pounds of these in my freezer. That is a major savings at the grocery store — fish ain’t cheap — and if you catch the cleanest species with the least amount of toxins, that’s a win-win,” Patenaude said.
David Montgomery is a southern Maine angler who may be enjoying the best of both worlds when it comes to enjoying freshwater fish while minimizing the risks.
For health reasons, he tries most of the time to be a vegetarian or vegan. When he does indulge himself, he eats only wild game or fish.
“I treat meat [venison] and fish as a treat, like a dessert,” said Montgomery, who eats fish maybe once a month and usually enjoys salmon, brook trout or perch.
Montgomery admitted the latter is among the least healthy because of elevated mercury levels, but said it is tasty.
And while Maine’s anglers may be waiting for more information before they change their eating habits, it doesn’t mean they aren’t wary about what further studies might show.
“I haven’t read too much about the PFAS issue, but I know it has basically ruined my expanded archery spots [in Greater Fairfield] for the foreseeable future,” said Wright, who confines his fish meals to white perch and black crappie during the winter and a few salmon or trout in the spring and summer.
“And it either has already, or will, contaminate every watershed in that area all the way to the ocean.”