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Michigan warns of PFAS contamination in Lake Superior smelt

smelt
Michigan health officials warn against eating more than one serving of Lake Superior rainbow smelt a month, after Wisconsin researchers discovered elevated levels of PFAS “forever chemicals” in fish taken near the Apostle Islands. (Shutterstock photo)

Bad news for Michigan anglers who plan to net and fry a mess of fish during Lake Superior’s spring rainbow smelt run: The fish could be contaminated with PFAS.

On Wednesday, Michigan regulators urged residents to limit consumption of smelt from the northernmost Great Lake to no more than one serving per month. The announcement comes more than two months after Wisconsin scientists discovered high levels of PFAS in the tissue of fish taken near the Apostle Islands in western Lake Superior.

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Adults should eat no more than 8 ounces each month, and children should eat no more than 2 or 4 ounces, according to an announcement from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The advisory comes just weeks before the start of the spring smelt run, a highly anticipated event for anglers who catch the fish in nets as they swim into Great Lakes tributaries to spawn.

The news was another blow to recreational and subsistence anglers who have already been told to limit or avoid eating fish from multiple water bodies across the state due to contamination from PFAS “forever chemicals.”

It’s particularly alarming for Upper Peninsula Native American anglers, for whom smelt and other Lake Superior fish are a dietary staple. Most members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community eat far more than 8 ounces of smelt during the spring run, said Chris Swartz, the tribe’s president.

“We’re a fishing tribe,” Swartz said. “That’s our way of life and the main part of our diet.”

Newfound PFAS contamination, longstanding mercury contamination and ecosystem shifts have caused some Great Lakes fish populations to struggle, Swartz said. “Our way of life is being diminished as we talk.”

The fish tested in Wisconsin had high levels of a PFAS compound known as PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, in their tissue. Research has linked the compound, which was once a key component in Scotchgard and other stain and water repellents, to a variety of maladies in humans, including developmental problems, hormonal and immunity problems, fertility issues and cancer.

State officials said it makes no difference whether someone eats one serving a month or if their consumption works out to a once-per-month average over the course of a year, state health department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said in an email to Bridge Michigan. 

In other words, she said, “eating 4 servings of Lake Superior rainbow smelt this month but none the rest of the year would still be within this precautionary guideline.”

After Wisconsin regulators in January warned that state’s residents to ration Lake Superior rainbow smelt meals, Michigan regulators initially declined to follow suit. By Wednesday, they had changed their mind.

In a release from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun called the one-meal-a-month advisory a “precautionary” measure in light of Wisconsin’s findings, until the state can collect and analyze its own samples.

“We will update this guideline once the department has additional data,” Khaldun said.

State scientists this summer will sample fish from lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan, as well as selected inland lakes.

The news underscores just how much researchers still have to learn about PFAS contamination in Michigan’s fish and wildlife, said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which counts hunters and anglers among its members.

“I’m just glad that we know before the season starts,” Trotter said, “so people have that information in-hand before they take to the water.”

Years into Michigan’s PFAS contamination crisis, scientists still lack answers to key questions about where PFAS has contaminated fish and wildlife, how the chemicals spread through the environment, and what that does to the species that live in a tainted waterway.

So far, smelt are the only fish in the Great Lakes subject to consumption advisories because of PFAS contamination, though fish in several inland water bodies are subject to advisories. Sutfin, the MDHHS spokesperson, said that in addition to smelt, state scientists will collect and test lake herring this year from lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan.

Trotter said her group has tapped anglers from the Huron River as messengers to spread the word about PFAS concerns to the rest of the group’s members. The Huron River’s PFAS contamination is so high that it’s deemed not safe to eat even a single fish from the watershed.

It’s a relief, she said, that the Lake Superior consumption advisory doesn’t put the lake’s smelt completely off-limits. One meal’s-worth, she said, “is still enough to get people out there” on the water.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which regulates hunting and fishing, said it’s unknown how many anglers in Michigan target smelt. But the fish is popular with ice fishers as well as spring dip-netters.

For Travis White, captain of the Keweenaw Charter Fishing Co. in Houghton, the advisory is just one more reminder of the real-world consequences of failing to prevent pollution in the first place.

“Hopefully as we’re learning more about this chemical,” he said, “we’re combining that with good stewardship to be more conscious of what we’re putting into the environment, so these issues don’t just keep getting worse.”

PFAS is just one among many contaminants present in Michigan’s fish. The state has issued consumption advisories around the state for other contaminants, from mercury to PCBs. For more information about fish consumption advisories in Michigan, visit the Eat Safe Fish program website.

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