Anglers urged to be wary of urban catch

Fish in city tributaries can carry parasites

Study aimed to identify risks

Handling or eating them could cause sickness

April 15, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Johns Hopkins study shows that anglers who fish Baltimore's urban tributaries risk getting sick because so many fish are infected with parasites that can cause stomach ailments and, in rare cases, fatalities.

Worse yet, those most likely to eat their catch regularly are the ones least aware of the dangers, according to Ellen K. Silbergeld, an epidemiologist and a toxicologist at the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Silbergeld surveyed the habits of 1,000 licensed fishermen by mail and interviewed 70 urban anglers at popular fishing spots in and around the city.

The licensed fishermen were more likely to know about the dangers as a result of reading state advisories, while the urban anglers were less likely to be aware of the risks of infection from cryptosporidium, giardiasis, E. coli and salmonella.

The parasites, which are likely to be passed on by handling infected fish, can cause diarrhea and other stomach ailments. Sometimes the results are more serious: Dozens died in Milwaukee after the parasite cryptosporidium swept through the city's water system in 1993.

In a presentation yesterday at the National Conference on Coastal and Estuarine Habitat Restoration at the Hyatt Regency downtown, Silbergeld -- a trout angler -- said the study was aimed at identifying risks to those who are not sports fishermen and not as likely to be informed by state-sponsored advisories.

As part of the study, Silbergeld also took about three dozen fish caught at the sites for laboratory analysis. She said the analysis showed that "just about every fish" had some form of bacteria that could sicken anyone who handled it.

She said the surveys were conducted from May to July, and included some of the area's most popular fishing spots, including the Back River, Middle River, Jones Falls, Lake Roland and the Inner Harbor.

In both surveys, anglers were asked how often they fished, what they caught, how often they ate their catches and how they prepared the fish.

Stark contrasts

Silbergeld said the two groups showed stark contrasts. While the licensed anglers fished only a few times a year and ate their catches on average about twice a year, the urban anglers fished more often and ate 10 to 20 meals a month from their catch.

"It's important to recognize the differences in these two groups, the fishing habits and the risks and the rates of exposure may be different," she said.

At Cox Point Park in Essex, one of the sites Silbergeld visited, none of the half dozen anglers dropping lines in the water yesterday was ready to believe that water quality was a problem around the leafy Back River. On warm days, the rocky area is packed with recreational fishers.

"I caught a fish this big this morning," said Curtis Mitchell, 43, his hands nearly 3 feet apart on the wooden picnic bench. "It didn't really look like the fish was sick or nothing."

Dondrell L. Weaver, 15, said he and his family have been making the hour-long trip from his West Baltimore neighborhood to the park for two years and that he has caught catfish, perch and other fish.

"It relaxes you," he said, minding his line.

He said water-quality problems wouldn't affect his fishing habits because he doesn't eat the fish he catches.

Handling the catch

But Silbergeld said that is one of the problems -- the potential harm comes from handling the catfish, perch, bass and other fish in area tributaries.

Although the fish are safe to eat when properly cooked (heat kills the bacteria), handling a fish while unhooking it, for instance, poses the risk of infection.

"The issue is touching them. They shouldn't be touching them," she said. Although rubber gloves can provide protection, she said, most fishermen won't wear them.

She said most of the parasites are likely to cause stomach ailments that don't require hospitalization -- or turn up in hospital admission records.

But she argued that area tributaries should be posted with warnings, or that advisories should be regularly distributed.

"I think some kind of communication has to be established, exactly what I don't know," Silbergeld said.

The state Department of the Environment tries to keep anglers informed about the risks by including health advisories on state fishing licenses and on the department's Web site, said Richard McIntire, a department spokesman.

He said most anglers also are familiar with the waters they fish, know they are polluted and know they must be careful about handling their catches.

Problem areas

"Certain areas of the state have had contamination for many, many years and most of these anglers should be aware of that," said McIntire.

He added that the location of warning signs is up to local jurisdictions and that often they don't stay up long.

"We don't have the resources, the money to be putting them up," he said. "Signs cost money to produce and put up and a lot of times they are put up and then they're torn down."

Silbergeld said the problem is that many waterside parks were created in the 1960s and 1970s which encourage fishing in urban areas.

But, she said, federal funding for sewage treatment systems hasn't kept pace with population growth, leading to frequent sewage spills, leaky pipes and polluted water.

"I think these places have got to be cleaned up. This kind of thing is outrageous," Silbergeld said.

Sun staff writer Stephanie Hanes contributed to this article.

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