A person is holding a fish
Maine has plenty of ponds that hold brook trout like this one. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Mallard

Ever since I was a kid, I have been eating freshwater fish.

Spending summers on Sebago Lake in southern Maine, we often caught and ate landlocked salmon, lake trout and even an occasional smallmouth bass or cusk.

Every year, on or around the Fourth of July, we have held a family cookout that features grilled freshwater fish. Some of it comes from Sebago, while other contributions — which may include brook trout, whitefish or other species — also have been provided from a variety of waters.

We always eat our fill and have never given it much of a thought — other than to leave room for one of the tasty desserts that capped off the gathering.

But times are changing.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday released consumption advisories after testing of freshwater fish in some waters revealed elevated levels of so-called forever chemicals.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in fish inhabiting waters near sites known to contain the chemicals have created significant cause for concern about what fish we eat and how much.

PFAS are known to present several potential health issues, such as increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, increased the risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, lower infant birth weights, a decreased vaccine response in children, higher cholesterol levels and changes in liver enzyme levels.

While it’s certainly no time to panic, Mainers must nonetheless recognize that PFAS in fish is an issue that we’ll be dealing with for the foreseeable future.

The state has barely begun its testing of potential “hot spots,” most of which are located where waste from sewage treatment plants or other sludge has been spread on farm fields.

The chemicals in that sludge have contaminated the soil and the groundwater, along with some of the wildlife living on or around the farms. Last fall, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issued a “do not eat” advisory for deer harvested in and around the town of Fairfield because of elevated PFAS levels.

Recently, the state said meat from wild turkeys harvested from the same areas was not of significant concern because of lower chemical levels and the limited amount of meat that is consumed.

However, until more sites are evaluated, and the fish and animals are tested, we won’t have a clear picture of how extensive the problem might be.

It makes sense to approach the situation much as we have handled the presence of the heavy metal mercury in fish, even though the chemicals and their effects on humans are entirely different.

Maine for many years has issued consumption advisories for freshwater fish taken from some waters because of the levels of mercury they contain.

Those warnings target pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant, and children under age 8. Those groups should not eat any freshwater fish from Maine’s inland waters because of mercury, according to the state.

The exception is one meal per month of brook trout and landlocked salmon.

The warning further suggests all other adults and children older than 8 can eat two freshwater fish meals per month, or one meal per week of brook trout and landlocked salmon.

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In regard to PFAS, anglers should take special note of the waters where the problem has been identified and the different fish species most affected. Suggested consumption limits were provided by the Maine CDC on Thursday in regard to a handful of specific waters.

They include: the Police Athletic League (PAL) Ponds in Fairfield; Fish Brook and tributaries from the headwaters to the confluence with Messalonskee Stream in Fairfield; Messalonskee Stream from the Rice Rips Dam in Oakland to the Automatic Dam in Waterville; Durepo Pond and Limestone Stream from Durepo to the dam near Route 229 in Limestone; the Mousam River from below the Number One Pond Dam to Outlet Dam on Estes Lake, including all of Estes Lake, in Sanford; the Presumpscot River from Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook to Presumpscot Falls in Falmouth; and Unity Pond.

Otherwise, the state has sampled surface waters throughout the state. In those with no known sources of PFAS contamination, levels are considered low and the fish safe to eat. That is, in conjunction with pre-existing mercury guidelines that are being followed.

While we wait to learn more about forever chemicals in Maine fish, there are a few things we can do.

First, it is prudent to follow the CDC guidance for waters where PFAS levels in fish are known to be elevated. And if you plan to eat fish from other rivers, lakes, streams or ponds, check the state’s mercury consumption parameters.

Small amounts of many fish, in the majority of Maine waters, are still believed to be OK to eat. Just limit the size and frequency of your meals.

I enjoy freshwater fish and I’m not going to stop eating it altogether, but it seems prudent for all of us to be aware of the potential health risks posed by both PFAS and mercury to help keep ourselves healthy.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...