Are you one of the many Australians who are out on the waterways with fishing rod in hand during summer? Well, you need to be careful where you fish. Authorities in Victoria are concerned that families may be risking their health by eating fish they’ve caught in mercury-contaminated waters – believing the risk is low.
By
Vixayt Vue

8 Dec 2015 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2015 - 4:13 PM

Migrants have been fishing in waters in Victoria’s south for years. Those trying their luck in waters of Lake Eildon, Melbourne’s Newport and Docklands areas – find their catch of the day usually feeds their whole family.

A Vietnamese man, who does not want to be named, has been fishing at Newport and Docklands for the past ten years. He thinks the fish caught from these areas is safe to consume. 

It’s the same for a Lebanese man, who also wants to remain anonymous. He’s been fishing with his father in these same areas for half a century, since he was five years old.

He says it’s safe to consume the fish because most of them are migratory fish (like snapper, Australian salmon and whiting), instead of the local fish, like bream or flat head.

Newport resident Seth also eats the fish he catches.

"Of course, of course. I don’t think there is any problem with it. The water was tested requently...uhm...Heavy metal levels are low. The only problem is sometimes after it’s rained a lot, E.colie levels are slightly higher.”

But authorities say contaminated fish could be related to past industrial contamination.

The state’s Department of Health and Human Services Senior Health Advisor Dr. Brett Sutton says some waters in Victoria might be contaminated with chemicals.

“The lower Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers can have increased level of some chemicals and one of the concerns are the so called PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls)"

“The lower Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers can have increased level of some chemicals and one of the concerns are the so called PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). These were used in various industry products from the 1930s into the 1970s and they can remain a long time in the environment."

A 2005 study showed that 2 in every 15 eels registered higher than safe levels of PCBs - chemicals that have not been used in 35 years.

In a statement to SBS Radio, government water management body, Melbourne Water says there’s many reasons why water quality is affected, including urbanisation, moving vegetation, construction and stormwater runoff.

"Water quality in the estuary is not the only factor that contributes to the potential human health risks arising from fish. Fish species that live in the estuaries vary in how and where they feed, what they eat, how long they remain in the estuary and whether they migrated and feed elsewhere for part of their lifecycle. All of these factors will combine to influence the potential for fish to become contaminated.”

The areas of concern for PCB or mercury contamination include the lower Yarra River, Maribyrnong River, and part of Lake Eildon – near where mining has been present.

Dr. Brett Sutton explains why chemical levels can cause concern.

"Mercury can stay in the environment for a long period of time but there is ongoing surveys where people do recreational fishing in some of those high risk areas where mining has occurred in the past".

"Mercury can stay in the environment for a long period of time but there is ongoing surveys where people do recreational fishing in some of those high risk areas where mining has occurred in the past and wherever there is an identified high level of mercury –above the recommendations- the Department of Health and Human Services will provide an advisory about limiting the fish intake according to the levels that are found so the Murray isn’t one of those areas.”

The excess of mercury can affect the neurological development of foetuses and children, and can affect adult’s vision and movement.

Dr. Sutton explains the Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines on consuming fish.

“Women of child bearing age and children under 16 the recommendation is that they shouldn’t eat caught eels and for everyone else they should limit the eels they catch to once serve per month. It’s useful that pregnant women are aware of women who are planning pregnancy or are in child bearing age and especially children under six years of age, we recommend that shark, flake or sword fish are not eaten more than once every two weeks and then for the rest of the populations no more than once a week and that’s because they are predator fish that eat other fish so the amount of mercury that can accumulate in their flesh is higher.”

To avoid mercury, authorities also recommend eating smaller and younger fish, as long as they are within the legal size limit. They also suggest removing the skin, fat, and internal organs before cooking, and grill or bake instead of fry.

Health guidelines have been distributed to local councils and recreational fishing authorities. But many don’t check the health guidelines before going fishing.

Newport resident Seth says there’s not enough signs in his area to warn people about fishing like those in other states.

“If you go down to Hobart or anywhere else in Tasmania it’s clearly signed where you should not consume fish from. If you go to Sydney the same, same deal, not in Victoria though, not in Victoria.”

“If you go down to Hobart or anywhere else in Tasmania it’s clearly signed where you should not consume fish from. If you go to Sydney the same, same deal, not in Victoria though, not in Victoria.”

Seth says the Victorian government should do more to inform people and to lessen the dangers. 

Dr. Sutton says the Department of Health and Human Services has carried out programs to raise public awareness.

“Better health channel is accessed by a lot of people. I think sometimes we can do better in terms of other languages where people need information in and you know it’s always a balance between having information on absolutely everything and targeted information”

It’s clear the warnings on consuming fish from certain waters have not reached many immigrants who can be seen fishing each day.

 

For more information visit www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/fish