For seafood lovers, there's no more confounding dilemma than balancing the nutritional benefits of fish and shellfish against the ill effects of the environmental contaminants contained within them. The latest advisory issued by the state - a warning to restrict consumption of striped bass and bluefish caught by anglers off the coast of Maryland - is a depressingly familiar example.
In this case, the problem is polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, odorless and colorless compounds used by the electrical industry but banned by the U.S. more than three decades ago. PCBs have been linked to cancer and can cause damage to the human immune system and liver.
People shouldn't eat a lot of fish containing PCBs. This is especially true of pregnant women and kids. And older, bigger fish - those that live and feed in polluted coastal waters - are more likely to accumulate higher concentrations of PCBs in their flesh.
What sets the latest fish advisory from the Maryland Department of the Environment apart is: A) It involves striped bass or rockfish, the official state fish revered by sportsmen and gourmets alike, and B) These are fish caught in the ocean, which consumers tend to think is safer (or at least a place where pollution is more dilute than in freshwater near cities and major industry).
The advisory may be directed toward fish caught by recreational fishermen alone, but that's only because of regulatory province. A rockfish caught in Maryland is a rockfish caught in Maryland, and so those who are more likely to buy their catch from the supermarket ought to pay as much attention as anyone.
That the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the health and safety of commercial seafood, hasn't issued a similar warning about striped bass is mostly a product of how it calculates risk. That means sampling fish from many places and not just from Maryland, for instance.
Is it safe to eat striped bass? For most people the answer is yes, within limits. Consumers would be wise to read up on all of Maryland's seafood warnings - all six pages of them, covering everything from Patapsco River eel and catfish (don't eat either) to Wye River white perch (enjoy) - at the MDE Web site, ( www.mde.state.md.us).
But one last warning: It's hard to read such a lengthy list without feeling miserable about how badly we have fouled the local waters. Eventually, PCBs may fade as an environmental concern (they do eventually degrade, and cleanup efforts are having an effect). But other too-common pollutants like mercury and pesticides that can concentrate in seafood suggest such health advisories are here to stay.