ERIE -- Brown bullhead catfish -- mud-colored, blunt-headed and bewhiskered -- aren't the prettiest of fish under normal circumstances. Add the cancerous blood-red lesions and tumors dotting the skin of many bullheads in Presque Isle Bay, and they get ugly enough to make even a seasoned fisherman turn away.
That's just what the state Department of Environmental Protection is preparing to do by proposing to remove the bay from an international list of places impaired by pollution, according to scientists, academics and health officials who have studied the bullhead problem for more than two decades and anglers who have caught the bottom-hugging catfish for longer than that.
But all that studying hasn't determined why the bay's bullhead are getting the tumors.
"You shouldn't de-list the bay if you're not sure what the cause of the tumors is. If there's the possibility of some public health risk you should be a little bit careful," J. Michael Campbell, a biology professor at Mercyhurst College and member of DEP's Presque Isle Bay Public Advisory Committee, said last week at the second of two DEP meetings to gather public comment on the proposed change to the bay's designation. "If the bay is de-listed now, it indicates that everything is fine -- and it's not fine."
Bullheads with tumors began showing up on anglers' hooks in the late 1980s. A study done in 1990 found 86 percent of the fish had cancerous skin tumors.
At the request of area residents, the bay was designated an "Area of Concern" in 1991 under the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. That designation was based on the tumorous catfish and their possible link to bottom of the bay sediment contaminated with heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic Aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
In 2002, because reduced Erie sewer overflows resulted in better water quality and a halt to sediment-stirring dredging, the bay was redesignated an "Area of Concern in Recovery" by the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes. This summer, the DEP is proposing to fully de-list the four-mile-long bay on Lake Erie's southern shore and Pennsylvania's northwest corner, saying water quality had improved and the incidence of bullhead tumors had declined to acceptable levels.
"Do bullhead still have tumors? Yes, but they now are occurring at rates that are comparable to other areas of the lake that are not listed," said Lori Boughton, director of DEP's Office of the Great Lakes. "We have met the criteria, met the goals of a healthy, diverse fishery set in 1991. It's an achievement for the department, for the city of Erie and for Presque Isle Bay."
Ms. Boughton said studies of bullhead from the bay from 2002 to 2007 found an average liver cancer rate of 2.8 percent and a skin cancer rate of 15.4 percent.
Bullhead caught in Long Point Bay, Ontario -- a non-industrial and non-urban area on the north shore of Lake Erie, used by the DEP as a measurement of recovery -- had liver cancer rates that averaged 1.2 percent and skin tumor rates of 6.4 percent. Other areas of the lake that are not "Areas of Concern" have higher bullhead skin cancer rates than Presque Isle, she said.
"We are comparable. In fact, we are better than many of those places around Lake Erie so we are ready to de-list," Ms. Boughton said. "We're talking about one species of fish here, and we have a vibrant, diverse and healthy fishery. We're not seeing the tumors on other species, and it's not like we have all kinds of fish turning belly-up."
Ironically, as the debate over de-listing was occurring, Presque Isle State Park was named one of the best parks in the nation for fishing and boating by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.
The DEP has pursued research, in partnership with area scientists and academics, over two decades, and spent close to $1 million, to discover the cause of the bullhead tumors, Ms. Boughton said. Each year of fish surveying and analysis costs about $20,000, Ms. Boughton said.
"It could be a virus, it could be the chemical contaminants, it could be a combination, or it could be something else," Ms. Boughton said. "We just don't know. We will continue to monitor the situation and continue to do testing of the fish as resources allow and continue to try to figure this out."
She said the citizen's advisory committee voted 13-7 in July to endorse the bay's de-listing.
But Robert Wellington, a member of that committee and a retired water pollution specialist with the Pennsylvania and Erie County health departments who has worked on bay environmental issues since 1966, said the tumor data has significant gaps and there are still indications that Presque Isle has a problem.
He said studies show the tumor rate in the bay declined to 60 percent in 1992, 44 percent in 1995 and 38 percent in 1997. It remained relatively flat -- between 38 and 24 percent -- from 2000 through 2005. The tumor percentages are different than those produced by the DEP because they are not adjusted to account for the age of the fish.
"The numbers show it's not gotten worse but it's not gotten a whole lot better," Mr. Wellington said, adding that de-listing now will make it easier for the DEP and EPA "to walk away" when it comes to funding future research.
D. Scott Ireland, a life scientist in the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, declined to commit to any future funding, but predicted Presque Isle "won't be a forgotten area" whether it's designated as an "Area of Concern" or not.
Andrew Glass, director of the Erie County Health Department, said the DEP shouldn't ask to de-list the bay until it figures out what's causing the problem.
"We do not feel that the research done has come to any conclusive results that show the criteria for de-listing the bay has been met," said Mr. Glass, who has sent the department two letters opposing proposed action. "We strongly believe that more work is needed before that should happen."
In his latest comment letter dated Aug. 30, Mr. Glass noted that there has been no fish tumor analysis conducted since 2007, and questioned both the data and changing levels of scientific analysis used by the department. The letter notes that while significant work, investment and improvement has occurred in the bay, there is "strong political motivation" to resolve the issue and reallocate funding.
"The fact of the matter is that brown bullheads with tumors continue to be harvested from the bay as we speak," Mr. Glass wrote. "The reasons for these tumors are not understood. The presence of these tumors was and remains, one of two beneficial use impairments for originally listing the bay as an 'Area of Concern.' "
The 30-day public comment period on the proposed de-listing was supposed to end Sept. 4, but the DEP said Friday it will be extended by two weeks.
After reviewing the comments, if the DEP decides pursue the de-listing, it will submit the proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes. If approved by both the de-listing proposal would be submitted to the U.S. State Department for final action.
The International Joint Commission has designated 43 "Areas of Concern" in the five Great Lakes since 1987. Twenty-six of those are in the U.S., 12 in Canada and five straddling the Canadian-U.S. border. Only four have demonstrated enough environmental improvement to be de-listed, and three of those are in Canada. The only U.S. de-listing, in 2006, was the Oswego River and harbor area, on the southeast corner of Lake Ontario in New York.
Ed Kissell, a member of the Public Advisory Committee and vice president of Save Our Native Species of Lake Erie, a fishing club with more than 3,000 members, said the de-listing proposal doesn't give him a good feeling.
"I'd like to have a good idea that the fish and waters are good and clean so the people that catch the fish can eat them," he said. "But without good science, I'm not sure my members can do that."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.