PRESS EDITORIAL: A sad fish tale tells lakes’ sad story

The beauty of Lake Michigan masks an unsightly blemish. Industrial chemicals lurk in its pellucid waters in such volume that fish that live there can be unsafe for humans to eat.

This is an enduring insult to one of the most precious resources nature has gifted to Earth. Invasive water creatures, starting with the lamprey eel and followed by mussels, fish and parasites from foreign waters, decimated the native fish populations that once fed millions. Two native fish that were the mainstay of the commercial fishing industry, whitefish and lake trout, have adapted somewhat to the changed lake environment and are making a modest comeback. Sadly, it’s a comeback under a cloud.

Years after the pollution of the Great Lakes by industrial operations was recognized as the menace it is and was largely curtailed by government regulation, the contaminants remain in the water and are absorbed into the fish people eat.

Concerns about the effects on human health have prompted health experts to warn that Lake Michigan whitefish, the noble fish that connoisseurs consider the finest-eating freshwater fish of them all, should be consumed no more than once a week to avoid health risks from industrial contaminants. The once-a-week advisory also applies to lake trout over 22 inches long and perch.

The fish-eating guidelines come from the Great Lakes Fish Consortium, comprised of agencies from the states and Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes.

Particularly worrisome to those who monitor the health of Lake Michigan water are PFAS, which are known as “forever chemicals” for the obvious reason. These pollutants reside in the flesh of fish, rather than the fat, and cannot be avoided when eating the fish.

The lakes have long been plagued by chemical pollutants recklessly discharged into the waterways of the Great Lakes basin by manufacturing operations. Besides PFAS, mercury and PCBs have been persistent in the five Great Lakes. Persistence is a common characteristic of the contaminants—they persist in the human body as well as in fish and the environment.

Efforts to deal with the threat were slow to start, but finally got going in earnest when the Obama administration implemented the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

That program got a boost last year with an infusion of $1 billion from the infrastructure bill passed by a bipartisan vote of Congress.

Much of that cleanup involves mercury and PCBs released into the lakes during the 20th century Midwest industrial boom. Efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and state natural resource agencies have largely controlled that form of pollution. But the PFAS menace continues as the forever chemicals migrate into the lakes.

PFAS are so worrisome that the EPA says no levels of them are safe for humans. States have been slower to react. The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board recently set an irresponsibly weaker PFAS standard of 70 parts per million for drinking water.

That standard needs to be toughened, but in the meantime the Wisconsin Department of Justice is taking its own tough approach to the problem by suing companies that have been the worst PFAS polluters, seeking to recover nearly $1 billion spent by communities to deal with drinking water poisoned by the chemicals.

The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people. The Lakes support an estimated 1.3 million jobs. They contain 84% of the freshwater on the North American continent.

Those impressive statistics are all reasons the federal government and the affected states cannot relent in the drive to mitigate the damage humans have done to the lakes and protect them from further damage.

Whitefish lovers have another reason—people ought to be able to eat as much of this succulent fish as they want.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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