For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Victoria Miller from Coosa Riverkeeper, to learn more about their Fish Guide project.
Where: Alabama USA
Number of regions: 4
Number of sites: 57
Sampling season: May to September
Sampling frequency: Once a week
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2012
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Victoria: My name is Victoria Miller and I’m Fish Guide Coordinator at Coosa Riverkeeper, serving through AmeriCorps VISTA. I just finished my first lap around and I’m starting my second year this May. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
What I do in that position is help to answer the major questions regarding fishing. Are fish safe to eat? How do I find that information? How do I protect myself whenever I’m going to consume fish? My mission includes talking a lot about fish consumption advisories and safe fishing.
Victoria: A lot of people get confused when I say Fish Guide, a lot of them expect me to go on a boat and go and show them where to fish and how. That’s not quite my job. With Coosa Riverkeeper’s Fish Guide program, I educate the public about how to keep themselves safe when fishing and eating fish.
Fish Guide also goes beyond that. We provide even more information, for example where is a good spot to fill up your boat or get your fishing license. Another part of Fish Guide is the Citizen Science Water Quality Monitoring program, where Citizen Scientists track water temperature and clarity to monitor the health of the river.
One of my favourite projects is the Alabama Fish Consumption Advisory Hotline that Coosa Riverkeeper hosts toll-free for the entire state.
Victoria: Literally my voice (laughs). A recording of my voice telling you, across each region of the state, which fish are advised to stop or limit consumption of. These are recommendations from the Alabama Department of Public Health to be protective of your health due to known contaminants found in fish advised against. See the full advisories online at https://www.alabamapublichealth.gov/tox/fish-advisories.html for more details.
Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to conduct fish tissue testing ourselves, so we have to work with the state issued advisories. There are definitely shortcomings to the current fish consumption advisory program and part of my job is to advocate for improvements to that program.
Victoria: Coosa Riverkeeper re-records the statewide hotline only once a year because that’s how often the state re-issues the fish consumption advisories. However, the advisories are broken up into six regions and each region is only guaranteed fish tissue testing once every five years. That is unacceptable in my opinion because a lot can change in five year, but I understand the budgetary constraints to expand testing. Instead, we would love to see our state agencies doing more outreach work, such as putting up signage, hosting an advisory hotline, and making more efforts to education the public on selecting fish safely.
Victoria: We monitor mainly for turbidity and temperature. These are two parameters that are very important to anglers in our community. Turbidity affects their ability to fish and the water temperature gives an indication of spring spawning.
Victoria: Justinn Overton, the Executive Director & Staff Riverkeeper at Coosa Riverkeeper, started this project out of her deep interest in the relationship between anglers and the river. It began with the first Coosa River Creel Survey, which involves talking to anglers fishing the banks to assess their knowledge of fishing, eating fish, fish consumption advisories, and local pollution concerns. Out of assessing the needs of the community, the Fish Guide program was born. Data from that survey and subsequent surveys tells us that 90% of anglers would follow fish consumption advisory advice with expanded, easier access to the information.
Victoria: I really liked our signage project. I am actually going to put up some signage about fish consumption advisories later today. Signage is very important to us in terms of getting our messaging out because it’s concrete and it’s on the ground. We are able to get the message out to the community even if they don’t have access to the internet.
But really the thing that I get the most fulfillment out of is talking to the anglers. I really like running surveys, because they know way more than me and they often tell me what I need to look out for. Our angler community is the first to know if there is anything wrong with the river and I encourage them to use Swim Guide’s Report Pollution tool to let us know what they are seeing on the water.
Victoria: I do, I have my fishing license and my boating license but I do not get out as often as I would like to. My favourite fish is Catfish. It is my guilty pleasure to pan fry them in a shallow pool of oil, but I try to follow the recommended cooking methods for Catfish that allow fat to drain away.
Victoria: The most common pollutant found in fish is mercury. This is problematic because there is no way to cook mercury out of your fish. But there are other pollutants which you could do something about.
In our watershed we have a lot of PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), which are highly toxic industrial compounds). These compounds are fat soluble, which means they are going to mainly accumulate in the fish’s fat tissue.
A way to reduce your exposure to PCBs is to reduce the amount of fat on the fish you consume.
Ways to reduce fish fat content can include removing the skin, filleting your fish and cooking it in a way where the fat content can escape.
Another way to reduce your pollutant intake is to eat smaller younger fish than older bigger fish because they would have been in the watershed for a shorter amount of time and would have less time to accumulate pollutants in their fat tissue.
But I would like to emphasize that instead of focusing on the ways to prepare the fish, you can be more intentional about which fish you go after to begin with by checking the fish advisories.
Victoria: The Coosa River Valley has the most freshwater fish biodiversity than any other region of the United State. We have incredibly rare and unique fish species in our river that you cannot find anywhere else. I love telling Coosa River anglers about how special fishing in the Coosa River Valley is, though sometimes they want to be left alone to fish!
Victoria: I’m not trying to stop people from fishing and I’m not trying to stop anyone from eating the fish. I am just trying to help them find the fish that are healthier for them to consume. The state recommendations are not legally binding, they are simply recommendations based on the testing the state does. I just think they need to take a step further to make sure this information makes it down to the docks.
If you would like to know more about the Coosa Riverkeeper Fish Guide project or about some of their other projects visit www.coosariver.org
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