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Contact: Kathleen Bird

Public Urged to Limit Meals of Certain Freshwater Fish
Due to Mercury Contamination

(02/56) TRENTON -The Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Senior Services today issued advisories warning people about unsafe mercury levels found in 21 species of freshwater fish from water bodies around the state.

"New Jersey is one of the best states for enjoying freshwater fishing and our recreational fishing industry will always be important to New Jersey's economy and people's lifestyles," said DEP Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell. "Everyone, particularly pregnant women and young children, should follow these warnings and limit their consumption of the freshwater fish listed in the state advisories."

It has been more than eight years since New Jersey last revised its public warnings of unsafe mercury levels in freshwater fish. The first advisory, issued in 1994, only involved two types of fish with relatively high mercury levels - largemouth bass and chain pickerel.

In humans, long-term exposure to elevated levels of mercury can cause adverse health effects, including neurological damage and other adverse health problems, including abnormal sensations of the skin.

Mercury poses special health risks to pregnant women, women who will become pregnant within a year, nursing mothers, unborn children, and children under age 5. Mercury above certain levels can damage the nervous system of developing children.

"Fish represents an important source of protein, minerals and vitamins," said Health and Senior Services Commissioner Clifton R. Lacy, M.D. "New Jerseyans should learn about and follow these health advisories to ensure that they are protecting themselves and their families before eating any freshwater fish they catch."

The environmental protection and health departments issued these new advisories based on a report finished in 1999. Agency scientists, along with The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, conducted an extensive study of freshwater fish from 76 water bodies. Based on their findings, the departments determined that 74 water bodies contain at least one fish species with unsafe levels of mercury for either the general or high-risk population.

A major source of mercury, a toxic metal, is emissions from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest that are carried through the air and deposited onto the ground and into water bodies in the Northeast.

"Today's advisories cover some of New Jersey's most popular freshwater game fish species," Campbell added. "Our warnings are targeted specifically at those people who fish our freshwater streams, lakes, rivers and reservoirs not just for enjoyment - but also to put food on the table.''

Most of the advisories are based on three factors: the type of freshwater fish, the water body where they are caught and the person consuming the fish. For example, consumption advisories for pregnant women, women who will become pregnant within a year, nursing mothers, unborn children, and children under age 5 are the most restrictive because they face the greatest health risks.

Some advisories are not water-body-specific but apply to certain fish caught anywhere in the state or a particular region. Because highly elevated mercury levels were consistently found in certain fish, DEP has taken the protective approach of establishing warnings for those species, even from waters not tested.

The study shows that mercury-contamination levels in freshwater fish were significantly higher in the acidic Pinelands waters in southern New Jersey as compared to the same fish species from non-Pinelands water bodies.

Statewide and regional Pinelands-area advisories were issued for largemouth bass, chain pickerel, smallmouth bass, sunfish, yellow bullhead and brown bullhead.

The new advisories include largemouth bass and chain pickerel and 19 additional fish species: smallmouth bass, walleye, lake trout, northern pike, muskellunge, hybrid striped bass, rock bass, white perch, yellow perch, black crappie, bluegill sunfish, redbreast sunfish, pumpkinseed fish, mud sunfish, brown bullhead, yellow bullhead, channel catfish, white catfish and common carp.

The consumption advisories range from "no restrictions" to "do not eat" for the general population and high-risk population - but also include intermediate consumption frequencies such as "eat once per week" and "eat once per month" - depending on the fish species and the region or water body.

The Department of Environmental Protection is launching an expanded public education and outreach campaign to better inform anglers and the general public about risks associated with eating fish taken from waters around the state. These efforts will involve:

  • Making updated information readily accessible on the Internet effective immediately. The department's web address is
  • Requiring all locations that issue state-fishing licenses to provide, along with the license, the state's new comprehensive, easy-to-use booklet of fishing advisories, which the department currently is developing. It will contain all state advisories, including information about mercury, dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in marine, estuarine and freshwater fish and other seafood such as blue claw crabs in the Newark Bay region.

    About 200,000 freshwater licenses are sold in New Jersey each year.

  • Publishing information in the New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Digest, which is published three times per year in editions devoted to freshwater fishing, marine fishing, and hunting. It is available free of charge at locations where licenses, bait and fishing equipment is sold.
  • Providing information to anglers' organizations and their members, environmental commissions and county and local health departments.
  • Providing health information through the medical community, including doctors' offices, county and local health offices, clinics and, especially, medical offices that treat pregnant women or women of childbearing age. This effort will be coordinated with the Department of Health and Senior Services.
  • Sending e-mails to anglers who have signed up to receive information through the Internet from the DEP's Division of Fish & Wildlife.

Mercury enters the food chain through aquatic organisms that are eaten by small fish. As larger fish eat those mercury-contaminated small fish, and so forth up the food chain, the mercury contamination becomes more and more concentrated and, ultimately, potentially dangerous to people.

Although the new data shows elevated levels of mercury in certain fish from the 50 water bodies studied, the quality of the waters used for drinking, washing and swimming is not affected.



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Last Updated: April 16, 2009