LAKE WYLIE On a recent sunny December afternoon, 11-year-old Junior Lee and his grandfather, Theng Lee, were fishing at Ebenezer Park on the southern banks of Lake Wylie. We catch the fish to eat them, Junior said, nodding enthusiastically. Junior said he and his family always eat their catch, usually bluegill and sometimes catfish. But some residents near Lake Wylie worry there could be potential health risks from eating Lake Wylie fish. Afterall, American Rivers last year named the Catawba River the most endangered lake in the country based on present use and future outlook for the river for its threat of outdated water supply management. Fred Snellenberger, who moved to Lake Wylie in 2005, recently e-mailed the Lake Wylie Pilot this: I find myself relying on local word of mouth about fishing in Lake Wylie. What locals in and around the lake tell me is that the fish are not good to eat due to sewage contamination. My family and I enjoy fresh fish that I have caught. Can you please inform me of the truth about the safety of Lake Wylie or recommend a Web site that will supply the information about the safety of the lake and eating its fish? As someone who keeps a close eye on what's happening in the river, Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman said it's wise to stay informed of what is in the water and if it is hazardous. I am very alert of what I consume, he said. I advise my wife to take a close look at what she is consuming also. There are two ways to make sure it's OK to eat fish pulled, not just from Lake Wylie, but from any major body of water in North and South Carolina. Both states keep public records about the water quality and fish tissue sampled. We have published fish consumption advisories for 10 years now, said Thom Berry, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Anyone can look and see if a body of water has an advisory, but these are only recommendations. There are no bans on what people can eat. Berry said DHEC posts an updated fish consumption advisory online every year for every major body of water in the state. According to DHEC, the Catawba River and Lake Wylie are two of 36 bodies of water in the state that currently have no advisories, meaning an angler can eat as much fish as you'd like from the water, as stated in the advisory.
Top threat There are a few specific locations throughout the state where various particles can be found in fish. Lake Hartwell in northwestern South Carolina contains manmade compounds called PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls), which stopped being manufactured in 1976 but are still present in the water. The compounds were often used in insulation and electrical transformers, and break down extremely slowly. The Savannah River, which creates the border between South Carolina and Georgia, has been positively tested for radioisotopes, which are radioactive forms of elements. But the most widespread risk, throughout much of the state, is mercury. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal found in rocks and soil that can also be produced by industrial sources such as coal-burning power plants. It can spread through the air, eventually making its way into the water. The effects of mercury poisoning can include numbing of lips, fingers or toes in adults but can cause brain damage in unborn and young children. We perform an entire battery of tests on not only the water bodies, but on the fish themselves, Berry said, explaining DHEC tests for all heavy metals, including mercury. He said tests are performed at least once a year. This is where it gets tricky. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which issues fish consumption advisories north of the border, issued a statewide advisory April 2 for mercury as a pollutant in all North Carolina bodies of water, including Lake Wylie. The fish don't recognize state lines, Merryman said, regarding Lake Wylie being placed under a North Carolina advisory but not South Carolina. The North Carolina advisory states high-mercury fish, which are usually larger fish that have accumulated mercury in their bodies by eating smaller fish, should never be eaten by women of childbearing ages 15 to 44, pregnant women, nursing mothers or children younger than age 15. All others should limit themselves to six ounces of high-mercury fish per week. In the Lake Wylie area, this includes large-mouth bass, bowfin, catfish and yellow perch, among others. The advisory also states low-mercury fish, such as bluegill sunfish, trout or tilapia, should be eaten in moderationless than 12 ounces a week for mothers and children, and less than 24 ounces per week for others. Technically, any fish with an average of less than 0.4 milligrams of mercury per kilogram of body fat is considered safe to eat, according to DHHS. Unfortunately, mercury levels are not something that are readily visible in fish, Berry said. The bottom line is just to read the advisories, he said.
Contamination concern Merryman said mercury is one of two things he would advise fish consumers to be cautious of. The second is sewage overflow and contamination in the river and the lake. When it comes to sewage, we need to hold our municipalities and our counties responsible for their facilities, making sure (sewage) is confined to their pipes, Merryman said. Also, hold ourselves and our neighbors accountable for our sewage system, keeping them up to date and keeping bacteria from making its way into the water systems. Merryman said as construction has increased around the lake in recent years, the amount of sewage overflow has increased as well. As recently as Monday, I have received calls about sewage leaks, this one in the Autumn Cove area of York County off Highway 274, he said. We get at least weekly reports of sewage spills into creeks which lead into the lake spills directly into the lake occur maybe monthly or bi-monthly. Merryman said on the North Carolina side of the lake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg utilities report any sewage spill more than 1000 gallons to the public. Residents can be placed on an e-mail distribution list, which sends alerts after large spills occur, he said. This is not the case on the southern side of the lake. South Carolina only reports spills to the state. Citizens are left in the darkthat should not be the case, Merryman said. It would take someone four or five weeks to find out about a spill (in South Carolina). That's completely absurd. However, Merryman agrees rather than restricting fish consumption, people simply need to follow the advisories, which are updated at least annually, and make the decision for themselves. Still, the warnings don't always deter the myriads of anglers from cooking their catch. Randy Lane of Rock Hill said he has been fishing in Lake Wylie for more than 30 years, and he has always eaten the fish. I think if you do anything in moderation you're OK, Lane said. I've been eating these fish for 35 years, and I'm not overly concerned. I'm 63, and I'm still healthy. However, he did admit the new construction and more fertilizer on new grass has him a little concerned. Fertilizer has a direct impact on the quality and safety of the waters, Merryman said. Not so much with the fish, but with skin contact. Some people could experience irritation. Bob Cartwright of Leslie, who was fishing in Ebenezer Park, said in 20 years, he has never dealt with any major health problems caused by eating fish out of the lake, but he is happy that the precautions are available. Junior Lee had a simple opinion about eating Lake Wylie's marine life. The fish are pretty good.
Want to know more? The current North Carolina fish advisories are available at epi.state.nc.us/epi/fish/ The current South Carolina fish advisories are available at scdhec.gov/environment/water/fish/ index.htm.
Mercury levels High-Mercury Freshwater Fish Blackfish (bowfin) Black Crappie Catfish (caught wild) Jack fish (chain pickerel) Largemouth bass (statewide) Walleye from Lake Fontana and Lake Santeetlah (Graham and Wayne counties) Warmouth