Eating fish or going hungry

Old Saginaw fish decoy
The state Department of Community Health last week released a discouraging report that anglers continue to ignore fish advisories in the Saginaw Bay watershed.
Why would Saginaw Valley residents risk eating fish from contaminated rivers?
We can think of three reasons:
1. They don’t care — or don’t believe the state’s science on the harmful health effects of eating fish from the watershed.
For those willingly playing a kind of piscatorial Russian roulette, probably no amount of education will help.
2. They aren’t aware of the risks of consuming fish from the bay or the Saginaw, Tittabawassee and Shiawassee rivers.
More signs along the rivers and a better focused education efforts could make a difference.
3. They’re poor and they need to eat and feed their families.
So while state and local officials intend to increase efforts to educate residents about the dangers of eating carp, catfish and other fish from the watershed — pregnant women and children are acutely at risk — it won’t stop a person desperate to feed a family from taking the risk.
A child is hungry today; the health effects of regularly consuming toxic fish may fester for years before they show up, if at all.
Neill D. Varner, medical director of the Saginaw County Department of Public Health, smartly notes that fish purchased at the supermarket is not always safe either — high mercury levels in tuna, for example. Pregnant women are best advised to avoid fish completely.
The region’s economic woes also play a role in the decision to ignore the warnings and consume river fish, carp and catfish in particular. Varner, a well-read man with an ear for a pithy phrase, notes that makes solutions more elusive.
“The difference between theory and practice is smaller in theory than in practice,” Varner says.
Any educational effort directed at fish consumption must also include counseling and advice for families who need help buying food. The information campaign must offer advice such as where to sign up for food stamps and the location of the nearest church pantry or food bank. And the more fortunate among us can donate to the United Way, pantries, food banks and soup kitchens.
No child, pregnant mother or struggling father should have to eat contaminated fish for want of safe food. Hunger will override long-term health concerns. Starvation isn’t a choice.

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