Redbreasts restocked: Favorite fry fish added despite mercury threat

Mitch Manis, S.C. Department Natural Resources fisheries technician, stocks more than 100,000 juvenile redbreasts from a holding tank into the Edisto River near Givhans Ferry State Park.

Bo Petersen

GIVHANS FERRY -- Tiny shiner baitfish already swarm the shallows as the fish holding tank is backed to the Edisto River boat landing. They're about to be swarmed by redbreasts just as small.

The sunfish, though, won't stay that small. Within a year they'll be large enough to catch and maybe keep for the fryer. Within two they'll be meal size.

Redbreasts are an Edisto tradition, so plentiful that for generations families have set up fish fries along the bank, waiting for bucketfuls to be hooked, then downing the fried filets until they were full. In a lot of ways, the custom is the oyster roast of rural Dorchester County.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have regularly stocked the river for years. The tank truck that showed up Wednesday at the Messervy Landing near Givhans

Ferry State Park dumped more than 100,000 juveniles. That truckload was among more than 400,000 stocked in the river from different landings that day.

In total, this round of stocking has a goal of nearly 1.5 million of the fish. What's curious about it is that the state also warns people not to eat too many redbreasts.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control advises consuming no more than a half pound (weighed raw) per week of redbreast out of the Edisto because the fish tend to have too much mercury. The river, it turns out, is seriously polluted with the contaminant, largely from coal burning and other fossil fuels.

Research indicates that if too much of that fish is eaten, the metal can cause neurological damage to developing fetuses and can harm the way children think, learn and solve problems. It's also been linked to heart disease in adults. Just how much mercury causes how much damage to adults is still being studied and has become a political test of wills among regulators, environmentalists and the power industry.

Redbreasts are among 10 fish in the river that DHEC advises to eat little or none of.

So, why stock redbreasts?

First of all, the fish still can be eaten safely in moderation, said Ross Self, DNR fisheries chief. Then, "there's more to redbreast than a food fishery. There's the recreational fishery." More than 16 million people per year fish freshwater, DNR has estimated. The fishery has an estimated $1.2 billion a year impact on the state.

That's a pretty good return on some 7 million to 8 million juvenile redbreasts, bass, catfish and other game species that are being stocked this year at a cost of $2 million, paid for through fishing license fees and a boating tax. The stocking is to replenish redbreasts that have been killed by the invasive species flathead catfish as well as recent droughts.

As for mercury, the newer the fish the better. They have an average lifespan of four to five years.

"Mercury is a problem and a problem we have to keep working on," said David Owens, a College of Charleston biology professor who has studied the impact of the pollutant on marine species. But, he said, "It takes a long time for an animal to accumulate enough mercury to be a problem. It's a lesser problem with an animal that hasn't spent its whole life in the stream."

Do not eat: Channel and flathead catfish, bowfin, chain pickerel, largemouth bass

Limited consumption: Black crappie, blue catfish, bluegill, redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish

Redbreast

--A type of sunfish

--Grow to 10 inches long and can weigh more than a pound

--Food fish for species such as largemouth bass

--One of the most popular and abundant freshwater catches during late spring and early summer.

--Predation by flathead catfish considered to significantly reduce populations.

Mercury

--The primary pollutant prompting fish-eating advisories for South Carolina freshwater; others are PCBs and radioisotopes

--Comes from coal burning and other fossil fuels, discarded wastes and natural sources

--Builds up in tissues; large amounts can cause neurological and other damage. Damage can be stopped and usually reversed if a person stops eating high-mercury fish.