NC Fish Forum Brings Stakeholders Together to Improve Fish Consumption Advisory Process

Duke Superfund Center’s CEC seeks to increase understanding, inform decision-making, and ultimately change behavior related to exposure to contaminants in fish, particular mercury and PCBs, among subsistence fish consumers in the Northeast Cape Fear River, with a special emphasis on reducing early life or developmental exposures for children and pregnant women. This is the second of three posts on the CEC’s fish consumption project. Stay tuned to learn more about how how work is progressing. 

By Sam Cohen

On March 21, we convened stakeholders from across North Carolina in Raleigh to discuss how fish consumption advisories are set and communicated, and how to improve the process to best protect public health. NC Fish Forum attendees focused on known risks like mercury, and emerging contaminants such as GenX and other PFAS.

Many stakeholders beyond academia were represented. This included state and local environmental, public health, and wildlife management government agencies, as well as sport fishermen, riverkeepers, and other environmental stewards. Rounding out the group was a visual note-taker, Mike “Muddy” Schlegel, who helped facilitate the forum and worked throughout the day to capture a visual summary of the key points and discussions, which is posted at the bottom of this page. Mr. Schlegel also has a background in watershed science, so he offered a uniquely informed lens on the issue.

Breakout groups discussing suggestions to improve FCA setting and outreach process.

At the start of the half-day meeting, NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) officials walked through the current fish consumption advisory process. Next, the attendees shared thoughts about how the process might be improved. There were many suggestions ranging in scope from more funding, to simpler messaging, and more engagement with subsistence fish consumers and other populations that have been historically difficult to reach.

Some of the challenges are technical and dependent on funding. To set an advisory, DHHS needs a certain number of fish samples from a given water body, which can be difficult to obtain, or costly, as in the case of PCB sampling. Advisories can also be very narrow, covering a specific fish species and contaminant in a single water body. There are limited resources available to catch and evaluate fish to produce usable data.

A perennial challenge for people working on this issue, which seems to span geography and institutions, is communication of the advisories. Not surprisingly, communication–between government agencies, with the public, use of signage, etc.–was identified by the group as a primary challenge for implementing effective fish consumption advisories.

Visual Summary of Fish Forum 2019 by Mike “Muddy” Schlegel

Following the full group discussion, attendees divided into three breakout groups to focus in on the challenges identified. Here, attendees were asked to focus on what an ideal fish consumption advisory process might look like, what were the real barriers to having that, and concrete actions that could help bring us closer to that ideal. At the end of the day, attendees reflected on what we covered, acknowledging the challenge ahead, and discussed how to turn these conversations into meaningful action. Though this was not the first time a diverse group of stakeholders like this has been convened, the forum signified their continued willingness to work together toward improving fish consumption advisories for the good of all involved.

Stay tuned for more updates on this work including a white paper which is in development, summarizing the meeting and next steps!

The NC Fish Forum was sponsored by Duke Superfund, NC State’s Center for Human Health & the Environment, and the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility, in collaboration with the NC State Department of Applied Ecology.