Tumor-Ridden Catfish Cause Concern over Bay's Safety State Wants to De-List Four-Mile Presque Isle Shoreline as Polluted Area

By Hopey, Don | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Tumor-Ridden Catfish Cause Concern over Bay's Safety State Wants to De-List Four-Mile Presque Isle Shoreline as Polluted Area


Hopey, Don, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


ERIE -- Brown bullhead catfish -- mud-colored, blunt-headed and bewhiskered -- aren't the prettiest of fish under normal circumstances. Add the cancerous blood-red lesions and tumors dotting the skin of many bullheads in Presque Isle Bay, and they get ugly enough to make even a seasoned fisherman turn away.

That's just what the state Department of Environmental Protection is preparing to do by proposing to remove the bay from an international list of places impaired by pollution, according to scientists, academics and health officials who have studied the bullhead problem for more than two decades and anglers who have caught the bottom-hugging catfish for longer than that.

But all that studying hasn't determined why the bay's bullhead are getting the tumors.

"You shouldn't de-list the bay if you're not sure what the cause of the tumors is. If there's the possibility of some public health risk you should be a little bit careful," J. Michael Campbell, a biology professor at Mercyhurst College and member of DEP's Presque Isle Bay Public Advisory Committee, said last week at the second of two DEP meetings to gather public comment on the proposed change to the bay's designation. "If the bay is de-listed now, it indicates that everything is fine -- and it's not fine."

Bullheads with tumors began showing up on anglers' hooks in the late 1980s. A study done in 1990 found 86 percent of the fish had cancerous skin tumors.

At the request of area residents, the bay was designated an "Area of Concern" in 1991 under the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. That designation was based on the tumorous catfish and their possible link to bottom of the bay sediment contaminated with heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic Aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

In 2002, because reduced Erie sewer overflows resulted in better water quality and a halt to sediment-stirring dredging, the bay was redesignated an "Area of Concern in Recovery" by the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes. This summer, the DEP is proposing to fully de-list the four-mile-long bay on Lake Erie's southern shore and Pennsylvania's northwest corner, saying water quality had improved and the incidence of bullhead tumors had declined to acceptable levels.

"Do bullhead still have tumors? Yes, but they now are occurring at rates that are comparable to other areas of the lake that are not listed," said Lori Boughton, director of DEP's Office of the Great Lakes. "We have met the criteria, met the goals of a healthy, diverse fishery set in 1991. It's an achievement for the department, for the city of Erie and for Presque Isle Bay."

Ms. Boughton said studies of bullhead from the bay from 2002 to 2007 found an average liver cancer rate of 2.8 percent and a skin cancer rate of 15.4 percent.

Bullhead caught in Long Point Bay, Ontario -- a non-industrial and non-urban area on the north shore of Lake Erie, used by the DEP as a measurement of recovery -- had liver cancer rates that averaged 1.2 percent and skin tumor rates of 6.4 percent. Other areas of the lake that are not "Areas of Concern" have higher bullhead skin cancer rates than Presque Isle, she said.

"We are comparable. In fact, we are better than many of those places around Lake Erie so we are ready to de-list," Ms. Boughton said. "We're talking about one species of fish here, and we have a vibrant, diverse and healthy fishery. We're not seeing the tumors on other species, and it's not like we have all kinds of fish turning belly-up."

Ironically, as the debate over de-listing was occurring, Presque Isle State Park was named one of the best parks in the nation for fishing and boating by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

Not worse, not better

The DEP has pursued research, in partnership with area scientists and academics, over two decades, and spent close to $1 million, to discover the cause of the bullhead tumors, Ms. …

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