Despite a shrinking budget and an uncertain future, Louisiana’s fish testing program is still finding waterways where fish might be unsafe to eat.
The Department of Health announced this week that Little Alabama Bayou, about 20 miles west of Baton Rouge, has fish with unsafe levels of mercury, a heavy metal that can stunt brain development and inflict long-term damage on the kidneys and heart. The bayou runs through the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, a popular fishing destination.
The new advisory extends from the bayou’s headwaters near East Krotz Springs to its confluence with Big Alabama Bayou. Women of childbearing age and children younger than 7 are advised to eat no more than one meal per month of the bayou’s bowfin and largemouth bass. Black crappie and drum from the bayou should be eaten no more than three times per month.
There are almost 60 fishing advisories across the state, including a large one that covers tuna, amberjack and other fish species from coastal waters, catfish from the Tangipahoa and Tchefuncte rivers, Tickfaw River crappie and several fish in the Amite River Basin.
Over the past five years, only one waterway has been added to the list.
The Department of Environmental Quality takes fish tissue samples at dozens of sites. The Health Department issues advisories when high levels of contamination are detected.
Mercury, the cause of most advisories, derives from coal power plants, the main global source of mercury in the environment, as well as from chemical plants, wood treatment centers and oil pipeline pressure meters.
The environmental department’s fish testing program was eliminated in 2008 then revived with a smaller staff and budget in 2015, when the agency received a one-time infusion of $1.5 million that had been paid by power company NRG Louisiana Generating in lieu of a fine.
Last summer, department officials estimated the money could support the program for a few more months or a year. This week, officials said there’s still money left but could not say how much or how long it would sustain the program.
Al Hindrichs, manager of the testing program, said the department has considered asking state leaders to fund the program.
“We’ve been promised general fund money,” he said. “I hope it comes through.”
Before the department cut funding to the program, the testing team averaged 100 site visits per year. The revived program has averaged about 40 per year since 2016.
The program’s struggles overlap with a recent surge in recreational and subsistence fishing. The coronavirus pandemic’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines inspired Louisianans to take up fishing in numbers not seen in almost a decade. During the first months of the pandemic, from March to June 2020, fishing license sales were about 50% higher than the same period in 2019.
A large number of the pandemic anglers were first-timers with newfound free time, while others were people who had lost incomes and were looking for inexpensive food.
Many of the fish listed in advisories are not prized catches. But bowfin and other species that sport fishers call “trash fish” are dietary staples in some poor, rural and minority communities that make use of whatever waterways are nearby.
Mitch Jurisich, a third-generation oysterman, dropped a long pair of oyster tongs into the Gulf of Mexico and lightly raked the water bottom.
Two Port Sulphur men, one described by authorities as a repeat offender, were fined this week for harvesting oysters in a polluted area of Pla…
If there was a particularly bad time for Louisiana to stop testing waterways for toxic fish, it would be now.