Sean Brady has trout fever.
Opening day of trout season began this weekend, and for someone who has fished since he was a child, it might as well be Christmas morning.
As a youngster, Brady fished all the time on the Allegheny River and ate the channel catfish he and his father caught.
Brady, executive director of the Hollow Oak Land Trust in Moon Township, didn't think anything of it then. He still fishes, but these days Brady doesn't eat his catch.
Back then, he didn't know about fish consumption advisories, an annual update of which species of fish an angler can eat from a certain water body.
For 2013, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has advised that anglers do not eat channel catfish and carp caught in the Beaver River. Levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, contamination in the fish are high. The commission recommends eating only one meal of smallmouth bass per month.
Such limits exist elsewhere in the region. The commission advises anglers to limit channel catfish and carp caught in the Allegheny River to one meal a month. In Beaver Run Reservoir in Westmoreland County, anglers should limit consumption of largemouth bass to two meals per month because of mercury contamination.
Rick Lorson, the commission's area fisheries manager for the southwestern Pennsylvania region, said the advisories are listed in a summary book fishermen receive when they buy their licenses. However, many don't read it.
"Even though you are supposed to look at it, a lot of anglers don't," Lorson said. "They take it by word of mouth."
Brady said people might not follow the advisories, even if they knew about them.
"I think people who fish a lot don't think about advisories too much," Brady said. "It's hard enough to catch a fish, then when you do, you are inclined to say, 'Hey, let's take advantage of this opportunity and eat it.'"
But, as a child, Brady said his family loved eating catfish once a week.
"It doesn't get any fresher than when you just caught it," he said. "It's a real luxury — it's never been frozen. Only you have handled it. At that time, we did not know that it was not a safe thing to do."
A 2004 study — conducted by the National Institute of Child Health & Development, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and others — suggests that anti-estrogenic PCBs may be associated with the development of endometriosis, an estrogen-dependent gynecological disease. The study included 84 women, ages 18-40, of which 32 had confirmed endometriosis.
Brady said one of his family members suffers from endometriosis, diagnosed at a young age.
"Based on research she did, it likely was related to a heavy consumption of PCB-contaminated fish," Brady said.
PCBs aren't the only issue. Heavy metal mercury is a common reason for a fish consumption advisory, and it appears mercury levels in local waters aren't dropping any time soon.
Mercury is most commonly released into the air by the burning of natural resources, such as coal. Released into the air, it settles into the water, as well as the ground and sediment.
"That's how they enter the food chain," said Myron Arnowitt, executive director of the environmental group Clean Water Action. "It gets into plants, then fish eat the plants. Bigger fish eat smaller fish and the bigger fish have the most pollutants. The process happens over time."
Agriculture, residential or commercial development and new technologies, such as natural gas drilling, all require clearing land, and all can contribute to silt and runoff into lakes, rivers and streams, raising the potential for mercury contamination.
"It's a slow death to the stream," Lorson noted. "It ends up suffocating the food supply, insects, and ultimately the fish are not able to survive. There has been an increase in pollution incidents with sheer number of wells in the state and region."
Lorson's job, among others, is to provide the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with facts and figures. Retention rates for stocked trout, pH levels, pollutants and contamination levels are used to inform the DEP about the state of the water ecosystem and are the basis for fish consumption advisories.
Lorson said the biggest change in fish populations came after 1972, when the Clean Water Act was passed. According to him, the survey done that year at the Maxwell Lock and Dam in Washington County found just one blue gill fish. In 2011, they found several thousand fish of 31 species.
"It has remained status quo since I've been here — since the late '80s," said Lorson. "Pollutants like PCBs and even mercury persist today and that's what we are having a problem with today."
PCBs are chemicals used in industrial applications until their widespread use was banned by the EPA in the late 1970s, Arnowitt said.
"Even though we aren't using PCBs anymore, we are still getting exposed to it," Arnowitt said. "It is a stable chemical, very persistent and doesn't break down. It's an ongoing problem that's starting to decline over decades, but it will be a problem over a long time."
These contaminants don't have immediate effects. The danger, rather, is long term.
The National Education Association Health Information Network produced an informational booklet for parents with children exposed to mercury who now have learning disabilities.
Dr. Larry Silver, former president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, said the dangers of mercury exposure are prominent for anyone.
"Mercury can impair, damage, and even destroy functioning nerve tissue," Silver said.
If commission officials find a pollutant in a river, that triggers alerts to the DEP and EPA. But Lorson said that system is flawed, because the commission doesn't have the money or time to sample all fish in the area.
"The DEP and (Pennsylvania Department of Health) don't have the capabilities of sampling all those fish because it costs money and time, but we are trying to do our best to increase the numbers for the public health aspect," Lorson said as his team of biologists counted the number of fish in Raccoon Creek State Park's Traverse Creek for the first time in 15 years.
The fish and boat commission isn't dealing with contamination coming from the steel industry any longer, but the legacy of industrial pollutants still exists, Lorson said.
"There's still industrial effluents coming into play from the factories that remain around the three rivers area, but a lot less than it had been during the steel-making era and coal mining," he said. "There are better controls over those kinds of things, and there's still a considerable amount out there, but much less than it had been."
ON THE ALERT
One solution to the problem, Brady and Arnowitt both said, is to make the advisories more well-known to the public.
"We do think it should be made more widely available," Arnowitt said. "Public health agencies and people who interact with people who fish like commercial dealers ... should provide more access to advisories."
Brady believes the commission provides a good amount of information to the public, but doesn't promote it as much as it could.
"If it's dangerous enough to warn people about people eating fish, you should probably make that information more readily available."
Brady said the fish and boat commission could place consumption advisories in a more visible section of its website. Currently the advisories can be found on the very last portion of the online summary book.
"If (the commission) is investing money into research, they should invest the money into communicating the results of that research — not just burying the info in the back of a booklet,"
Brady said. "(That's) better than nothing, but for the average fisherman, who perhaps has a shorter attention span because they just want to get out there and fish, you might want to make it more readily accessible."
The advisories may not mean much to those who fish for sport, Brady added, but there are communities who fish for sustenance — such as struggling families who may not have access to the Internet.
"I have seen cases on the river where people take home stringers of fish for people who may be poor," Brady said. "They were helping them out, but what might be getting lost in the translation there is the danger that the fish could have to women who are having children and children themselves are the most vulnerable populations."
Even unborn children can still be affected by mercury contamination.
"Even if a child has not been exposed to harmful chemicals, maternal contact with these toxicants during pregnancy may still have adverse consequences," Silver said.
And, if those who don't have enough money to purchase food, they might not have the funds to purchase a fishing license — and then wouldn't know about the advisories.
The Amish also fish for sustenance and do not have access to the Internet. The only way they would know about the fish consumption advisory is by reading the back of the summary booklet.
Even if someone isn't fishing for sustenance, fishing as a sport is a multi-billion dollar industry, according to Arnowitt.
"Tourism is one of the biggest industries here right after agriculture," Arnowitt said. "It's an important factor to the economy."
Brady said it's a popular pastime that can still be a healthy activity.
"People are doing it for the pure fun and the connection to nature, experiencing that with friends and family," he said. "People should just enjoy themselves and eat fish that they catch. You're camping and you catch a couple bass — it's nice to make it an occasional thing."