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Mercury Contamination in Wisconsin Fish – Particularly Walleye

With fishing season now open in Wisconsin, environmentalists are warning about the danger of mercury contamination and the need to curb it. (
With fishing season now open in Wisconsin, environmentalists are warning about the danger of mercury contamination and the need to curb it. (
May 11, 2016

MADISON, Wis. - Now that the first week of fishing season is here in Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources and the state's largest environmental organization, Clean Wisconsin, are warning anglers to be mindful of the dangers of mercury contamination in game fish.

Every inland body of water in the state is under a fish-consumption advisory because of high levels of mercury contamination. Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for Clean Wisconsin, warned of a phenomenon called bioaccumulation: The larger the fish, the more mercury it will accumulate.

"We love to eat walleye in Wisconsin; that's probably the favorite fish to put on our dinner tables," he said. "Larger walleyes, they're eating smaller fish and they will absolutely accumulate a large mercury burden."

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that has been linked to nervous-system, kidney and liver problems.

Clean Wisconsin provides a free online resource regarding mercury contamination in Wisconsin's fish. That web page also contains a link to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' official guidelines for safe fish consumption.

According to Reopelle, more than 1,500 pounds of mercury is emitted into Wisconsin's air each year. The mercury in the air falls out of the atmosphere when it rains, he said, "and it's put in the atmosphere by a number of sources, but the biggest sources are coal-fired power plants and solid-waste incinerators that burn a variety of products, many of which have mercury in them."

Other sources of mercury contamination from landfills include old-style mercury thermometers and medical waste.

A number of policies in place and laws under consideration would reduce mercury emissions and better protect the health of Wisconsinites. Reopelle said the biggest challenge is reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"They eventually have to get to a 90-percent reduction, but that's still going to leave some significant mercury emissions," he said, "and one of the additional ways that can get at the remainder is EPA's Clean Power Plan, which is, of course, held up in the courts right now and is a source of debate."

The EPA has estimated that for every $1 spent on reducing mercury emissions, public health reaps $9 in benefits.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI