Warning issued on fish, mercury

SOMERSET — High levels of mercury in some popular Lake Cumberland fish species have prompted a warning:

You can catch 'em, state officials say, but eating them could be harmful to your health.

A new advisory for the lake issued Tuesday ramps up an advisory for all state waterways that has been in place since April 2002.

Lake Cumberland, which covers more than 38,000 acres in south-central Kentucky, is one of the state's most heavily visited lakes.

Children and women of childbearing age are now advised to eat black bass from the lake no more than six times a year. For everyone else, once a month.

For crappie and rock bass, the suggested limit is a meal a month for women and children, and a meal a week for everyone else.

The statewide advisory says women and children should eat any fish caught in the state's waters no more than once a week.

The warning for Lake Cumberland is the result of new tests that show higher mercury levels in fish caught in the lake. Two other much smaller lakes also were added in the new advisory.

Because only a few lakes and rivers are tested each year, other bodies of water could have fish with similar mercury levels, said Guy Delius, acting director of the state Division of Public Health Protection and Safety.

The purpose of the "risk-based advisory," he said, is to help people decide how often they eat fish.

Mercury can cause nerve and brain damage in children under 6. It also can be passed from expectant mothers to unborn children, and to infants through breast milk.

Kentucky is one of at least 21 states that have advisories covering all waters where fish are caught, rather than specific rivers and lakes.

Much of the mercury that ends up in fish tissue comes from man-made pollution, including emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Mercury from power plants is put into the air by smokestacks and drifts down in tiny particles, or is brought down by raindrops.

It can travel great distances, but East Kentucky Power Cooperative operates the 341-megawatt Cooper Power Station on Lake Cumberland near Somerset.

Company spokesman Nick Comer said emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants are not regulated. However, at the request of the state Division of Water, the company monitors mercury in the discharges and intakes at the power plant on the lake. Typically, he said, the levels are usually too low to detect with the equipment in use.

When airborne mercury hits the water, it reacts with bacteria to form an even more toxic substance called methylmercury. The methylmercury is absorbed by one-celled plants and animals, which are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by larger fish. The level of methylmercury grows as it works its way up the food chain. Thus, a large predator fish, such as a bass, is likely to contain more mercury.

Although eating fish has become worrisome because of mercury and other pollutants, it still is widely touted as an excellent source of low-fat protein and omega-3 acids.

Benjy Kinman, director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said in the advisory that fish are "good for you when eaten in moderation."

Testing of fish from Lake Cumberland started because the state listed the lake as impaired by mercury, according to a report by the state Division of Water. Fish from the Fishing Creek, Otter Creek and Wolf Creek areas and around Jamestown Marina were collected from 2005 to 2007.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowered the water level in Lake Cumberland early in 2007 to take pressure off Wolf Creek Dam while beginning repairs on leaks. Delius said, however, that the water level was not a factor in the mercury concentration.

Whether the new advisory will affect fishing on the lake was unclear.

Phil Glass, who has been a fishing guide on the lake for about 15 years, said it wouldn’t hurt. He also said there’s been mercury in fish in the lake for years, but officials didn’t look for it.

“I don’t know of a single problem it’s ever caused,” he said.

Bill King of Wayne County, who said he has been a fishing guide on the lake since the early 1950s, said he thinks most people who catch fish out of the lake eat them, rather than catching and releasing.

The consumption advisory might hurt fishing, he said, as the salmonella outbreak a few months ago caused some people to stop eating tomatoes for a time.

“It’s a concern to me,” he said of the potential that the advisory will cut into the fishing business.