Carefully piloting a boat in the Atchafalaya River Basin on a recent morning, the state Department of Environmental Quality workers were on the hunt for an invisible prey.
The crew laughed about being a little rusty. Until recently, it had been years since they headed out on the water with this particular mission. They weren’t just looking for fish but the mercury that could be lurking inside any angler’s catch.
After eight years of little to no activity, DEQ is back out collecting fish samples to test for mercury contamination, coming up with the data that is then used by the Louisiana Department of Health to put out fish consumption advisories.
Current advisories are simply outdated. DEQ stopped regular fish testing — a program that cost $500,000 annually — in 2008 as part of a series of budget cuts across state agencies by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Late last year, the Jindal administration announced the decision to resume testing, which has started to take place, beginning in southwest Louisiana. But environmentalists and state officials are hopeful that in time they will find additional money to bring other aspects of the mercury program back as well.
For the first time since 2008, a coalition of environmental groups met with DEQ officials and others last week to talk about the mercury program’s past and what it could be again.
“We’re hoping to get everything geared up and keep it running this time,” said Al Hindrichs, a DEQ environmental scientist in the water permits division.
Barry Kohl, president of the Louisiana Audubon Council and longtime proponent of the mercury program, said staff and Secretary Chuck Carr Brown, a former DEQ employee appointed this year to head the agency by Gov. John Bel Edwards, were very supportive of putting a more robust mercury program in place. In addition to the fish testing, the groups said that there needs to be a better public awareness campaign about the dangers of mercury consumption from fish.
“If the public doesn’t understand the problem and don’t understand the fish they’re eating is contaminated, then we really have a problem,” Kohl said.
Public awareness can be as simple as reinstalling cautionary signs at waterways to direct people to the state’s guidelines about what fish are safe to eat and getting more information into the annual fishing guide put out by state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Kohl said.
Other aspects of the program include locating and cleaning up mercury-containing gas meter sites and enforcement of mercury-reduction regulations, Kohl said. But, he added, it all comes down to money and finding a way to pay for the additional work in a department that has seen staffing cuts during the past eight years.
The current rebirth of the fish testing program is thanks to a four-year, $1.5 million consent decree between DEQ and NRG Louisiana Generating that allocated the money for a beneficial environmental project. It’s not the $500,000 a year the department previously spent on fish testing — a figure that paid for the collection of samples at 100 sites each year — but it’s a start.
The current funding means that staff will be visiting 36 sites this year in southwest Louisiana, with seven already completed, Hindrichs said.
“But we’re hitting it where it’s important,” he said.
DEQ staff are first going back to areas that were originally on the advisory list. If there is money left over at the end of each year, they will venture to some areas that had high enough readings that they were close to being added. It hasn’t been decided what region will receive sampling next year.
Hindrichs said results from the first round of testing should start coming back in a couple of months. The state health department will then be able to update its advisory list.
Currently there are 48 fish consumption advisories in place on 85 water bodies around the state, although because of the discontinued testing some of the advisories are based on samples that are as much as 14 years old. These advisories offer recommended limits on how much of certain types of fish should be eaten. Many of the advisories apply only to pregnant women and children, groups particularly vulnerable to mercury poisoning.
Mercury gets into the water from the pollution in the air or spills and eventually can be ingested by fish. As the mercury accumulates in the flesh over time, anyone eating that fish will absorb the mercury as well.
Mercury can cause neurological problems, especially for infants and children, which is why back in the late 1980s, the state decided to start testing fish and putting out public warnings of what kind or how much of a particular type of fish could be dangerous.
Mercury poisoning can occur if people eat a lot of contaminated fish. Symptoms include numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, tremors or other neurological symptoms. Eating a lot of contaminated fish over a long period of time can lead to memory, vision and hearing loss as well as birth defects.
Fish testing started in 1989 in one northern Louisiana parish, but really got rolling in the 1990s. The program got boosts through subsequent governors until 2004, when an even larger Louisiana mercury reduction initiative was launched. But the program was halted in 2008 as the Jindal administration focused on shifting DEQ to being almost exclusively funded by industry’s fees and fines.
The trio that has been heading out into southwest Louisiana waters these days — Corey Schwartzenburg, Carrick Boffy and Shane Miller with the DEQ Lafayette office — did fish testing around the state for years back in the program’s heyday.
It was a full-time job back then, sampling at two to four sites a week, with other days devoted to preparing the samples. With their past experience in doing the work, the group is handling the first part of the sampling this year, with help from other offices, and will start training other regions on how the sampling should be done.
The fish collectors use a small boat outfitted with electrical gear that hangs out over the sides like large, ungainly umbrella frames. Flexible wires are hung from these frames and used to deliver an electrical charge into the water, temporarily stunning whatever fish are swimming nearby and bringing them to the surface for collection.
The goal, Miller said, is to get a good variety of not only species but lengths as well. The older a fish, and higher on the food chain the fish is, the more likely that fish will contain mercury if it’s in the environment.
As the boat heads to shorelines, investigating tree outcroppings and old railroad ties to look for fish, Schwartzenburg and Boffy stand at the bow with long nets waiting. An electric shock is delivered into the water and they start scooping, checking their nets to see if it’s a new species and keeping track of what they’re still trying to find. They focus on keeping those fish that people eat and leave other ones to recover and swim away.
Those fish brought into the boat are put in a live well until the spotters think they have a good collection. The staff sorts through the catch for species and then divide those species, bagging them together by length.
“Good sites like today, we can have up to 12 or 13 different groups,” Miller said.
On an overcast June morning, the crew collected 18 groups that included largemouth bass and bluegill to be taken back to the office for processing.
Kohl said he was encouraged about the future of mercury testing in Louisiana, but still laments that the previous program built over the years was shut down. It will take time to revive the program, he said.
“It was the best in the nation,” Kohl said. “When you kill something entirely, it takes awhile to put the pieces back together.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.