The EPA released a list of advisories issued by states that monitor lakes and rivers for pollution levels affecting fish caught during recreational and sport fishing but not deep-sea commercial fishing.
"It's about trout, not tuna. It's about what you catch on the shore, not what you buy on the shelf," Mike Leavitt, the administrator of EPA, said Tuesday. "This is about the health of pregnant mothers and small children, that's the primary focus of our concern."
Leavitt emphasized that monitoring by state officials is increasing, while pollution levels, particularly from mercury, are dropping.
But he also said that nearly every time state officials check for pollution, they find it, meaning that eventually almost the entire United States could have fish advisories.
Leavitt said emissions of mercury from human activities dropped about 45 percent from 1990 to 1999, but he did not provide more recent figures. Pollution from mercury comes from industry such as coal-fired power plants, the burning of hazardous and medical waste and production of chlorine. It also is naturally occurring in the environment.
"I want to make clear that this agency views mercury as a toxin. Manmade emissions need to be reduced and regulated. There has been an appropriate, heightened public concern," Leavitt told reporters in his office.
This year, 44 states had a fish advisory for mercury, a persistent substance that affects the nervous system. Two more states, Montana and Washington, added statewide advisories to warn of the potential for widespread contamination of fish.
The EPA national list for 2003 shows 48 states issued 3,094 advisories — up from 2,800 the previous year — because of polluted fish. Two states, Wyoming and Alaska, had no such monitoring.
Environmentalist groups described the latest figures as troubling.
"From Maine to Montana, from Florida to Washington, people can't eat the fish they catch without risk," said Felice Stadler of the National Wildlife Federation.