Job losses because of the coronavirus pandemic have created a fishing boom in Louisiana, but the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is running out of money to test waterways for toxic fish. Contamination is the major problem and most fishing advisories are linked to mercury.
The Advocate reported that coal power plants have been a main global source of mercury in the environment. In Louisiana, the newspaper said other causes of mercury pollution have included chemical plants, wood treatment facilities and pressure meters in pipelines.
Mercury is a heavy metal that can stunt brain development and inflict long-term damage on the kidneys and heart. It is especially harmful for children and developing fetuses. Pregnant women have long been warned against eating too much deep-water fish, such as tuna, amberjack and mackerel — which the newspaper said are all under advisories on the Louisiana coast.
Chris Piehler, a retired state scientist who oversaw the mercury program, said, "It was the acidic dark water, the slow-moving swampy areas. And Louisiana is full of these kinds of places."
The fish testing program cost about $500,000 per year, but that ended in 2008. DEQ gutted the program during Gov. Bobby Jindal administration's push to force cuts across various state agencies. The Advocate said there was no fish tissue sampling for eight years, except in the aftermath of a chemical or oil spill.
Bryan McClinton, manager of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries licensing program, explained why testing is so important now. "People are off work and getting a little stir-crazy, so we've had quite a surge in fishing licenses."
Al Hindrichs, manager of the DEQ testing program, said the funding will last a couple of months. The program has been using a one-time allotment of money from a legal settlement "to limp along at diminished capacity over the last four years." Future funding sources could include state tax dollars, grants or donations.
Hindrichs said, "Mercury is in so many places and it's not going away. When you find it, it's not something you can just shut off."
Barry Kohl, a Tulane University environmental scientist and long-time proponent of the fish testing program, said DEQ needs to start hunting for money now, not just to maintain the program but also to expand it.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic that fueled the current fishing boom has also caused major state budget shortages. That puts the health of seafood lovers at risk at a time when safe fish are in high demand.