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Experts focus on fish consumption

CASS LAKE -- The work being done by the Environmental Protection Agency at the St. Regis Superfund site is meant in part to stop contaminants from entering Cass Lake, Pike Bay and other area bodies of water, EPA Remedial Project Manager Tim Drexler said at a meeting Tuesday night to update citizens on the Superfund process.

Addressing citizens on fish consumption safety were Pat McCann, with the Minnesota Department of Health, and John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who was present in his role as environmental policy analyst for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and lead technical person for the tribe on the Superfund site.

McCann said people who enjoy fish have choices to make, based on species, sizes, bodies of water and how often to consume fish, and that fish contamination is not just a local or state issue.

"Mercury in fish is a global problem," she said, adding that mercury is a nervous system toxin that in a child can affect abilities to learn and process information.

Contamination is spread through the food chain, McCann said, explaining that contaminants in algae spreads to insects that are eaten by small fish, which are in turn eaten by larger fish.

"Contamination levels increase with each step in the food chain," she said.

According to the MDA, a 150-pound person should consume about half a pound of fish in a meal. Those who weigh more can eat more, those who weigh less should eat less.

Safety issues depend on the fish, she said, noting that sunfish, crappies, yellow perch and bullheads are unrestricted for the general adult population, and should be limited to once a week for children younger than 15 and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Predator fish such as walleye and northern pike should be limited.

In Cass Lake, cisco, white sucker and yellow perch are unrestricted for the general adult population and limited to one meal a week for children and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, she said. Walleye and northern pike are limited to one meal a week for the general population and one meal a month for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. McCann said people should not eat whitefish from Cass Lake.

She said similar advisories exist in Pike Bay except larger walleyes and northern pike are limited to once a month for the general population.

Persell said the most important factor in fish consumption is the safety of children. "If the child is protected, everyone else is protected."

He said people on the reservation eat a lot of fish. Perch and panfish carry no limit, he said, but people should consume walleye or northern pike that are under 3 pounds no more than two times per month and should not eat any of these fish that are over 3 pounds. People should limit whitefish to four meals per month and fish liver and eggs should be consumed for ceremonial purposes only, he said.

"I work for the Tribal Council," he said. "The place I am most concerned about is the Leech Lake Reservation."

On the reservation, fishing, hunting and gathering of food are traditional practices.

"We tell people not to eat fish because of the mercury," he said. "Well, what are they going to eat?"

Other foods found in nature include moose, deer, grains, fruits and vegetables, he said.

But it's not only fish that carry health advisories because of contamination, Persell said. He showed a variety of foods whose consumption is recommended to be limited. For example, turkey breast can be eaten eight times per month, but bacon should only be eaten three times and chuck roast should be avoided. Wild rice, wild and garden vegetables and potatoes are among foods that are not limited.

Persell said the solution to contamination of fish is to continue trying to keep contaminants out of the waters.

"We know it's out there. So what do we do about it? I don't' know. I wish I did know. We will talk about it. I don't know if it's beatable."

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