Even anglers who embrace catch-and-release are alarmed about PFAS in fish

·5 min read

May 29—AUGUSTA — As Ryan Doyon helped his 6-year-old son untangle a hook from the bottom of Togus Pond two weeks ago, he laughed and relished sharing his favorite pastime on his favorite lake.

But Doyon stopped with concern when discussing the PFAS, or "forever chemicals," found by the state in fish in seven Maine waters, some within 30 miles of Togus Pond. Like many — if not most — anglers in Maine, Doyon practices catch-and-release. Still, he said the idea of harmful chemicals being found in fish is alarming.

"We don't eat them. We just fish for fun. But it's terrible it's happening," Doyon said. "I grew up on this lake. I've fished it for 30 years. It would probably really hit home if it was found here."

PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used in water- and stain-resistant products and have been linked to cancer. The chemicals have been detected in fields in the central Maine towns of Fairfield and Oakland, where farmers unknowingly used sludge for fertilizer that contained PFAS. Since then, the state has found the chemicals in deer killed by hunters, and, more recently, in fish in seven water bodies that were tested around the state.

Those waters are Durepo Pond and Limestone Stream in Limestone; the Police Athletic League Ponds in Fairfield; Messalonskee Stream in Fairfield, Waterville and Oakland; the Mousam River below Sanford; the Presumpscot River below Westbrook; and Unity Pond in Unity.

Only in the fisheries in Fairfield are fishermen warned not to eat any fish. In the other five area waters, it is recommended anglers consume only a limited amount of fish meals from those waters per year. The recommendation in most of the waters is not to eat more than three fish meals per year.

Many anglers fishing in the affected areas this month said that while they are concerned, they are not going to alter their fishing habits, chiefly because many practice catch-and-release. They fish for sport not for food.

There are 6,000 lakes and ponds in Maine, as well as 32,000 miles of rivers and streams. So the seven waters with the PFAS advisory so far make up a minuscule percentage of the fishable waters in Maine, anglers point out.

But the state is not done testing for PFAS in wildlife.

Last fall the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife tested white-tailed deer and wild turkeys in the Fairfield area for PFAS, and found high levels in both. Hunters were advised not to consume deer harvested in the area, but the advisory did not extend to turkeys, since the game bird offers so little meat, said IFW Wildlife Director Nate Webb.

IFW has received funding for a full-time PFAS coordinator, someone who will help direct monitoring efforts and educate the public. Webb said the department plans to test other large and small game animals, including squirrels and grouse. That position is in addition to what current staff are doing to monitor PFAS.

IFW Fisheries Division has a budget of about $155,000 for staff, equipment, and analysis for the PFAS sampling, but because lab costs are about $476 per sample, the department will need to prioritize fish sampling, said Director of Fisheries and Hatcheries Francis Brautigam.

Some anglers expect more advisories to follow.

"I'm really worried about what comes next," said Jeff Reardon, the Maine state director for Trout Unlimited. "I eat mushrooms, fiddleheads, other edible plants, waterfowl, game birds, deer, moose and other wild game, along with commercial seafood, shellfish and both fresh and saltwater fish I catch myself. How far will the contamination spread?"

Greg Ponte of the Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, never eats the fish he catches, but he worries about gardening.

"We've been quite concerned about it," Ponte said. "Most of my friends practice catch and release. But other animals, like deer, wander. It's not like they stay in the same spot. That's a major concern."

Tina Morang of Augusta loves eating landlocked salmon and brook trout — but she also only casts for a fish meal farther north in the state.

Morang prefers fishing north of Moosehead Lake if she's fishing for food, because the water is cleaner and the fish are wild. She didn't think those waters would be threatened by PFAS leaching into streams from farm fields or mills.

At Messalonskee Stream in downtown Oakland, that was Keith Smith's thought: Go north. His go-to fishing spot is Schoodic Lake in Milo, about 50 miles north of Bangor.

"If I see a fish, I'll eat it. I'll just fish in the places that don't have (PFAS)," Smith said.

At the northern end of the Presumpscot River, anglers who practice catch-and-release (and were fishing a stretch of river that only allowed catch-and-release) worried about all the unanswered questions around the recent PFAS advisories.

"I would still fish. But it (stinks) if that poison is in the fish. You have to wonder what other populations it's affected. It's disturbing. You don't know how it affects animals, what's the lifespan of those animals will be," said Ian Anderson, 32, of Falmouth.

Two hours later on the same river, 31-year-old Clark Shepard of New Gloucester fly fished long after Anderson had left, but echoed the same sentiments.

"Fishing is one of the greatest resources in Maine, one of the greatest tourism draws, and one of the greatest reasons to live in Maine," Shepard said.