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Dangerous catch of the day on Lake Erie

Bacteria-laden beaches, lakes choked with algae and fish contaminated by industrial waste: these have been symptoms of pollution in the Great Lakes since the late 1950s. With growing threats to drinking water, wildlife populations and human health, governments on both sides of the border took action to reverse the Lakes' decline in the 1970s. Today they supply water to one-third of all Canadians and one-seventh of all Americans. Under the watchful eyes of scientists and environmentalists, the Lakes are slowly becoming great again.

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For centuries people have made a living by fishing the teeming waters of the Great Lakes. Now there's something else in the water: industrial pollution. That's why commercial fishing has been banned on both Lake Ontario and Lake St. Clair, a smaller lake in the Great Lakes system. Pollutants like PCBs and the pesticide "mirex" accumulate in fish, making it unsafe to eat. But, the CBC's Tom Leach learns, the fishery's still alive on Lake Erie. 
• "Bioaccumulation" is the tendency of toxins to build up in the fatty tissues of an organism. These materials do not metabolize or break down with time, and tend to increase as they move up the food chain from one species to another. The concentration of the toxin can rise with each dose.
• Mercury, PCBs, lead, and dioxins are among the toxic materials that can bioaccumulate in animals and humans.

• Eating toxic fish can have negative health effects on everyone, but it's especially dangerous for children and women of child-bearing age. Mercury and PCBs in particular can impair fetal development.
• In the United States, many state authorities issue advisories on how much of a certain fish species is safe to eat.
• In 2000 the International Joint Commission issued a warning that eating Great Lakes fish was a health risk.

• When the first Europeans arrived at the Great Lakes there were about 150 different species of fish in the lakes. They ranged from tiny sticklebacks to sturgeon that reached up to three metres long.
• Commercial fishing on the Great Lakes began in the 1820s and grew until the 1880s. A parasitical alien species -- the sea lamprey -- began to thrive in the lakes and decimated many local species.

• Improved fishing methods brought catch numbers back up until the 1950s. By then, most large, valuable species had been virtually lost to overfishing, predators, habitat loss and pollution. Only small, mostly undesirable fish remained.
• In the 1940s the annual catch for all the Great Lakes was between 27 million and 36 million kilograms; half a century earlier, in 1889 and 1899, it was recorded at 66 million kilograms.

• In 2003 all five Great Lakes netted commercial fishers about 12.5 million kilograms of fish.
• Of the Canadian commercial fishery that remains on the Lakes in 2004, two-thirds or more is in Lake Erie. Smelt and yellow perch are the most common catches; the smelt is exported to Japan and the majority of the perch is sold in American restaurants and supermarkets.
• About 2,500 people were employed by Great Lakes commercial fisheries in 2004.

• A federal U.S. law prohibits the sale of fish affected by toxic contaminants. In 1997 it became illegal for commercial operations to fish perch on Lake Michigan.
• Commercial fishing by Americans on the Great Lakes is limited to a few species: whitefish and bloater chub, as well as perch and smelt. The alewife is also caught, but only for animal feed.
Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: May 22, 1977
Guest(s): George Alexander, A. Le Feuvre, Gary McCaskey, Henry Regier
Host: Peter Kent
Reporter: Tom Leach
Duration: 5:13

Last updated: September 29, 2014

Page consulted on September 29, 2014

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