Don't Eat The Fish: Kalamazoo River Warnings Aren't Reaching Everyone

Jul 11, 2017

Ryan Dy of Holland (right) and Tom Fik of Allegan (left) fishing at Allegan Dam
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

People aren’t supposed to eat the fish out of the Kalamazoo River, but many still do. Fish in the river are contaminated with PCBs - the toxin leftover from Kalamazoo’s old paper mills. Eating the fish over time could cause cancer, birth defects, neurological issues, and other health problems. Decades ago the state put up signs warning people of the risks that come with eating the fish, but those signs aren’t reaching everyone.


Bundles of fishing line and lures hang on a power line across Allegan Dam. You can tell it's a popular spot to fish.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Ryan Dy of Holland fishes at Allegan Dam - also known as Calkins Dam - a few days a week. He's been going to the popular fishing spot for the past 20 years, but no one ever told him not to eat the fish. 

"It's my close to home fishing spot," he says.

For the most part, the Michigan Department of Health recommends that people don’t eat any of the fish out of the Kalamazoo River at any time - especially if you’re younger than 15, have health problems, or you’re a woman of childbearing age.

Even downstream of Allegan Dam, where there’s less contamination, the health department advises people not to eat more than two fish out of the river per year. You can find more specific details on fish consumption guidelines here.

Low-Income, Spanish-Only Residents May Not Know The Risks 

Michelle Bruneau with the Michigan Department of Health is heading up a project to create new fish advisory signs. She says the state has always had their Eat Safe Fish Guide online, but the people who eat the fish the most probably don’t read it. 

Bruneau says some low-income people live off of the fish in the Kalamazoo River - and they likely don’t own a computer or a fishing license:

“So what we’re working on right now is designing new signs that will be much more accessible for everyone and that will include also people with low literacy and also people that speak other languages, namely Spanish. We’ve heard that there is a need for that in the area. So we will be translating some of the signs into Spanish as well.” 

Current Signs Are Confusing And Don't Stand Out

One of the fish advisory signs for the Kalamazoo River, put up by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Even affluent, English-speakers can miss the original 25 signs put up by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Jamie McCarthy works with the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, a local environmental group that’s been helping to spread awareness about the fish.

She says the old advisory signs are wooden and tend to blend in with their environment.

"They look like a lot of the other DNR kiosks. They can be sort of overlooked and people don’t always spend the time," she says.

"They’re excited to get out there, they’re excited to get their line in the water.”

The current signs were put together by scientists, not professional communicators. McCarthy says even without scientific jargon, the info in the advisories can be difficult to understand.

“You can eat certain species from certain parts of the river and not others, so that’s a little difficult to communicate,” she says.

New Easy-To-Read Fish Advisory Signs

"We really want people to understand that the water isn’t dangerous. People can still swim in the water, they can still paddle."

So what will these signs look like? First, they'll have pictures of the fish. 

“We realize that not everybody calls the same fish species the same names,"says Michelle Bruneau. 

"Then there’s a bar that goes from yellow to orange to red across the bottom that lets people kind of know really quick by looking which fish are going to be more contaminated versus others.”

Bruneau says there’ll also be an image that explains how PCBs actually get into the fish.

“Cause we really want people to understand that the water isn’t dangerous," she says. "People can still swim in the water, they can still paddle.”

Once the design is done, Bruneau says the state hopes to double or triple the number of fish advisory signs along the Kalamazoo River. Ideally, they’d have them up by early fall - just before the salmon run.

How Donald Trump Could Affect The Project

Bruneau says the health department has been working to get these signs for quite a while, but it only got funding for the project three years ago through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The iniative just happens to be one of the items on President Trump’s chopping block.

“So fortunately we were already pretty much planning on the project going away. Our grant ends September 30th and with the way the election went we weren’t expecting to get more funds," says Bruneau.

Fortunately, Bruneau says the Michigan Department of Health is now receiving state funding for education and outreach for state fish consumption guidelines. Bruneau says she hopes the project will continue - because even if just one person is eating the fish on the Kalamazoo River, that’s one too many.