Anglers are perched on Massachusetts’ shores long into the cold weather, fishing for fare that often lands on their dinner tables: Striped bass.

But what they may not know is the striped bass they catch in state marine waters may contain high levels of toxins that make eating too much harmful to one’s health, especially for pregnant women and children.

Massachusetts is the only state on the East Coast that does not specifically mention striped bass in its fish consumption advisories. While some states issue broad blanket advisories, especially for pregnant women and children, others offer warnings not to eat too much of striped bass from specific water bodies.

Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire all recommend that children as well as women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant not eat striped bass at all. Some states in New England warn the general population not to eat more than a maximum of between 4 and 12 meals per year of striped bass caught in state waters. Rhode Island has the most stringent advisory, urging striped bass not be eaten at all.

Now, Massachusetts activists are pushing for a bill that would create a statewide consumption advisory to warn the public about high levels of mercury and PCBs, a likely carcinogen, that may be in striped bass. They say fish in Massachusetts have the same risk of toxins as striped bass in other states where there are advisories for the fish.

“Folks cannot make informed health choices if they are not being told of the dangers of consuming what they otherwise are being misled to believe is safe to eat,” said Dean Clark, Massachusetts co-chair of the conservation organization Stripers Forever, while speaking at a state Joint Committee on Public Health hearing on the bill in September. “This labeling bill corrects a public awareness oversight in immediate need of fixing.”

Clark’s son was born with developmental disabilities that he believes may have been caused by the large amounts of fish, specifically striped bass, his wife ate while pregnant in the 1960s, before research revealed the detrimental consequences of consuming too much mercury.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health advises that that children under 6 years old, as well as women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant, should not eat any striped bass at all. (Source: Connecticut Department of Public Health.)
The Connecticut Department of Public Health advises that that children under 6 years old, as well as women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant, should not eat any striped bass at all. (Source: Connecticut Department of Public Health.)

No federal warning specific to striped bass exists; instead, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consumers look to their states for advice on eating fish caught in local waters.

While all adults are at risk of mercury poisoning, children, infants and fetuses exposed to high amounts of methylmercury—the form mercury takes once it filters into waterways and is absorbed by aquatic organisms—may be at risk of impaired neurological development, warns the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

While striped bass are not specifically mentioned in Massachusetts’ consumption advisory for fresh- and saltwater fish, the advisory does include a recommendation that at-risk populations limit consumption to 12 ounces, or about two meals, per week of fish or shellfish not covered by its guidelines.

“In general, the guidance is focused on balancing the risks of potential contaminant exposure with the benefits of natural fatty acids that are helpful in reducing cardiovascular disease,” Marc Nascarella, director of toxicology for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said in a statement.

State commercial fishermen have caught nearly 866,000 striped bass so far this year, according to the Division of Marine Fisheries. Meanwhile, more than 166,000 people have been issued recreational fishing permits from the state that would allow them to fish for striped bass during the 2015 season, Katie Gronendyke, press secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, wrote in an email.

It’s unclear how many striped bass recreational fishermen land each year, because the sport is often catch-and-release.

Migration routes for striped bass along the Massachusetts coast originate from spawning grounds in the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware River, and the Hudson River. (Source: Mass. Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.)
Migration routes for striped bass along the Massachusetts coast originate from spawning grounds in the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware River, and the Hudson River. (Source: Mass. Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.)

The Massachusetts commercial fishing season for striped bass is June 25 through Aug. 20, according to the EEA. While the recreational fishing season for striped bass is technically open year-round, the EEA’s website classifies stripers as “strictly spring to fall transients in Massachusetts.”

“One of the reasons striped bass is so popular is because it swims so close to the shore, it’s easy for the average person to fish for them,” said Mike Spinney, a proponent of the bill and a Stripers Forever board member.

Striped bass are predatory fish that spend most of their lives in marine waters but spawn in estuarine waters along the Atlantic Coast and major tributaries further inland. The fish have been found as far south as Florida and as far north as the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, although most migrate within a geographic range that begins at the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina and continues up the East Coast, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The bill, pending before the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives, also calls for the state advisory to inform consumers concerning toxin levels in other ocean fish, such as tuna, mackerel, swordfish, grouper and bluefish. Three Democrats are the leading sponsors of the bill: Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, of Taunton, and Representatives Kimberly N. Ferguson, of Holden, and Thomas M. Stanley, of Waltham.

Massachusetts advises at-risk populations against eating bluefish, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna steak, and more than 12 ounces of canned tuna per week but provides no consumption advice for the general public.

“We feel that the consuming public needs to be informed,” Clark said. “There are a lot of good healthy fish that are safe to eat, and those fish should be promoted to help the commercial fishing economy in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”