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Poor get fish, but not warning

Food bank offering had no mercury alert

BOISE – A North Idaho food bank gave away thousands of pounds of fish donated by the state wildlife agency without knowing about a state health department warning that eating too much of the mercury-contaminated fish could be dangerous for pregnant women and children.

In 2008, the Bonner Community Food Bank in Sandpoint, along with as many as eight other groups around the region, received the lake trout and whitefish caught from Lake Pend Oreille with gillnets through an Idaho Department of Fish and Game program to restore endangered bull trout and kokanee.

Since at least 2007, the Department of Health and Welfare has advised pregnant women and children to eat just one monthly meal of lake trout and four meals of whitefish caught from Lake Pend Oreille. Food bank director Alice Wallace says she gave out 4,700 pounds of fish to the region’s low-income people last year but was never told of the specific advisory.

She said it wasn’t clear whether some people ate more than the Health and Welfare recommendation.

“The fish that comes into the food bank is put into a public freezer that clients pick up for themselves,” Wallace told the Associated Press. “It is the client’s choice as to whether they take it or how much they take.”

Wallace said the free fish are a welcome addition to the food bank’s offerings. The only other fresh meat her organization can afford to give out is hamburger and ground turkey. “I don’t think there’s any fish out there that doesn’t have some of this,” Wallace said of the contaminants.

Most clients probably understand that eating fish has risks as well as benefits, she added, noting that warnings on mercury in albacore tuna have been around for years. But in the future, all families who take the fish will be told of the advisory, Wallace said.

Justin Hayes, with the Idaho Conservation League, said the fish giveaway, while well-meaning, saddles financially distressed residents with a tough choice: take fish contaminated with mercury, or go hungry.

“You have low-income families struggling to put food on the table, and the state is providing them with fish that can be dangerous to the long-term health of their children,” said Hayes, whose organization works statewide to raise awareness of mercury pollution. “I don’t think they should be giving those fish away, irrespective of whether they provide a warning or not.”

According to Health and Welfare’s 23-page warning about Idaho’s mercury-contaminated fish, “if fish high in contaminants are eaten in excess, children may have delayed or impaired physical, mental or behavioral development.” A 30-pound child can safely eat two ounces of fish in a meal, the agency says.

Emily Simnitt, a Health and Welfare spokeswoman, said her agency only last Wednesday learned of the Fish and Game giveaway. It provides lake trout, also known as mackinaw, and whitefish to as many as nine organizations, including the Kalispel Indian tribe, groups in Spokane and the Sandpoint food bank.

“The advisory is really about eating fish judiciously and using your reason and your judgment,” Simnitt said. “People need to be aware of it. But it’s still a very good source of nutrition.” She noted that some store-bought fish also has mercury contamination. For instance, the federal Environmental Protection Agency advises women and young children to eat only one six-ounce meal of albacore tuna per week.

Chip Corsi, regional supervisor for the Department of Fish and Game in Coeur d’ Alene, said the fish donation program began in 2003 after a previous effort to reduce lake trout, which prey on kokanee and bull trout, on another North Idaho lake prompted outrage among some that the fish were being thrown away.

“There is a demand from food banks for good sources of protein,” Corsi said, adding his agency now plans to better inform the public.

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