The meat of a largemouth bass is dull white and threaded with spidery black lines. My six-year-old son Zephyr rose with the early morning fog and caught two fish from the dock. Now he and his twin brother Emmet each sit before a plate piled high with the flesh of half a fish, breaded and pan-fried.
We’re spending Labor Day weekend with my husband’s former stepmother and her current husband. It’s a complicated relationship, and we try to keep it simple by calling them “Grandma Cloe” and “Grampy David.” They’re like in-laws, only they come without all of the stress that characterizes my interactions with my real in-laws, my husband’s biological parents, and we usually get along great. But today the tiny kitchen-and-living-area of the cedar-shingled cottage vibrates with tension. At issue: I don’t want my child and his brother to eat the fish he caught.
Cloe and David’s camp is on a small lake in Maine, a state with the dubious status of “tailpipe of the nation.” Perched on the northeastern corner of the United States, the prevailing winds carry pollution from the Midwest’s power plants and the Mid-Atlantic’s traffic to our airspace, bringing hazy views, breathing difficulties, acid rain and, what I’m most concerned about at the moment, mercury.
I have worked in air quality regulation most of my career, and I am familiar with air pollution and its health effects. I know that mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can damage developing brains and nervous systems, and that we have enough of it in our fish that Maine’s health department recommends that children younger than eight eat no freshwater fish caught here. But science doesn’t always jive with real life.
Cloe uses her hands to eat her helping of the other fish Zephyr caught, picking out the bones and sucking the juice off her fingers, while she tells a story about getting a fish bone caught in her throat when she was a child, and how her mother rushed her to the neighbor’s house, a doctor, who set her on the washing machine and extracted the bone with a pair of tweezers.
Zephyr picks up the fish’s tail and nibbles it.
“I’m not sure you’re supposed to eat the tail,” I say, my voice rising to a higher pitch than normal.
“The tail’s the best part,” Cloe says, picking hers up and crunching it between her teeth. “Like potato chips.”
“Don’t you want to share some of that with someone?” I ask the boys for the third time.
“Just stop it, Andrea,” David says. “Calm down.”
I wish that they would see my point of view on this, but I know what they are both thinking: I grew up eating fish, my kids grew up eating fish, and everyone’s fine. I wish my husband Curry, sitting mutely across the table, would weigh in on the conversation. I also know that I need to calm down. I don’t know the exact risk of my little boys each eating half a fish once before they turn eight, but I do know the danger in frightening them away from fishing altogether.
My oldest son, Milo, caught his first fish three years ago, from the very dock where Zephyr caught the bass. Before we left home, Curry, who had been unable to join us, explained to me how to grasp a fish by its head and slide my hand over its back to depress the sharp spines on its dorsal fin. Milo and I were both apprehensive about the prospect, but when we arrived at camp, he ran out of the car and dropped his line into the water. Within moments he caught a sunfish with a fly he had tied himself. We lowered the fish into a basin of water and I managed to wedge it against the side and pry the hook out of its mouth without getting anywhere near its barbed back.
Over that weekend, Milo caught several dozen more sunfish, and, between following his little brothers around as they chased frogs along the lakeshore, my skills at unhooking and releasing improved. He also caught a bass, which he and David cooked up and ate. I didn’t say anything about the mercury, and Milo continued to fish, organize his lures and tie flies over the next couple of summers, until last year when Curry let slip the reason we catch and release.
We had come to the lake over Fourth of July weekend, and one evening we all piled into the canoe and drifted out across the lake. The boys sat in the middle of the boat, slapping each other with slippery red lily pads, I swooped a little insect net through the air, trying to catch one of the bright yellow damselflies that skimmed over the water’s surface, and Curry cast Milo’s line off the stern of the boat. When he reeled in a bass, the boys begged him to bring it back to camp and cook it.
“Nope,” Curry said, plopping the fish back into the lake. “You can’t eat the fish you catch because they have mercury in them.”
When Milo demanded to know how the mercury got into the fish, Curry said, “Because of coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. Ask mama. She can explain it better.”
While that was true, it’s not a story I want to tell my children, so I didn’t elaborate on coal-fired power plants, and how they had been grandfathered into the Clean Air Act, with the expectation that they were so old they wouldn’t be around much longer, but that forty years later they continue to spew pollution into the air, unchecked. I didn’t tell them how the mercury settles out of the air onto the ground, and in our water, or about the alchemy performed by bacteria in our soils and lakebeds, turning elemental mercury into the much more toxic organic mercury, which works its way up the foodchain, becoming most concentrated in the loons, the osprey, the otters and the humans at the top. I did not mention Minamata, Japan, where years of dumping mercury into the bay resulted in horrible birth defects and diseases.
We returned to the lake later that summer, after Curry told the boys about mercury, and Milo, seeming undaunted, fished again. Standing side-by-side with his brother on a rock he said, “I like fishing. Do you, Emmet?”
“Yeah,” Emmet replied. “You know why? I like the colors of the fish.”
“I like the tug,” Milo said. “The surprising tug on the line.”
Yet after that day, Milo has never fished again. Maybe it was the anxiety caused by the mercury, or maybe he just moved on the other interests. Now he sits across the table from his brothers with their plates full of bass, munching on a slice of pizza.
For my children, fishing is a leisure activity and a privilege. If they do not get those few ounces of protein every Labor Day weekend, they will not starve, and perhaps my obsession with mercury in the fish they catch makes me sound overprotective or neurotic. But for some, fishing is both a cultural and economic imperative. How can we justify forcing families in need to make a choice between letting their children go hungry and exposing them to a brain-damaging chemical?
I believe the precautionary principle should always guide environmental policy and decision-making: in the absence of absolute knowledge or understanding of risks, laws and regulations should always err on the side of greater protection of humans and nature, regardless of costs to industry. But on a personal level, I find the precautionary principle much harder to implement. Every day as a mother, I act as a risk assessor and risk manager, weighing the relative dangers and merits of different choices, usually with very little to go on, other than my gut instinct, my own childhood experiences and my current mood. Rarely do I have facts or data to inform my decisions. How do I weigh the freedom my son feels riding his bike to and from daycare by himself against the possibility that a car might hit him, or the basic rite of passage of catching and eating a fish against possible irreparable neurological harm? I waver, never consistently protective or relaxed. Sometimes I let out a little more line, and sometimes I reel in a little more tightly.
Even as I cringe while Zephyr scoops up a forkful of fish, I note the dark brown hue of the foot dangling from his chair; I have been neglectful of sunscreen all summer. Suddenly the risks of fishing pile on top of each other like wobbly rocks on the lakeshore: he could fall off the dock and drown, or hit his head on a rock; he could get a hook in his eye; his suntan could lead to skin cancer; he could choke on a fishbone.
Yet every one of these risks I’m willing to balance against the benefits of sunshine and fresh air and exercise and being close to nature. To have my boys spend their childhoods indoors, watching television, with no opportunity to bond with nature and no experiences worth remembering and recounting to their own children seems to me far worse. But letting them eat tainted fish makes me feel like every effort I have expended in trying to keep their world safe has been wasted. And it makes me angry. Why should I even have to worry about my child eating a fish he reeled in with his own hands? Why do we live in a world where we have said it’s okay for a few to profit from polluting everyone and everything else?
In the end, Emmet and Zephyr eat only a few bites of their fish. Maybe they’ve picked up my hysterical vibe, or maybe it just doesn’t taste that good (Emmet gives me a bite of his, and it tastes, well, fishy). But it’s not the end of the story. We’ll keep coming back to the lake every Fourth of July and Labor Day for as long as our kids will want to spend a weekend in the woods with their parents and honorary grandparents, and I will never feel completely comfortable either letting them eat fish or not letting them eat fish.
Andrea Lani lives in Central Maine with her husband and three sons. Her fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published online at Literary Mama, Vox Poetica, The Motherhood Muse, and Rhythm of the Home, and in the magazine Brain, Child, and she blogs at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.