Steve Cringan stood in the bow of a flat-bottomed boat, long-handled net in hand, peering into the water as the craft glided along the banks of the Kansas River below the Bowersock Dam.
He was looking for fish, and he didn't have to look very hard.
The boat was equipped with two telescoping arms trailing electric wires through the river -- 220 volts of electricity to stun nearby fish, which floated on their backs to the water's surface.
Cringan used his net to pull one specimen out of the water and inspect it. He threw the fish back. It quickly recovered and swam away.
"That's a buffalo," he said, referring to a species he didn't want on this trip. "You still need a certain amount of luck, even when you're electrofishing."
Cringan wasn't out for sport or food; electrofishing is illegal in most cases. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment scientist was collecting fish to study how much pollution they carry in their bodies -- work that could someday make it safer for other fishermen who cast lines into the Kansas River to eat their catches without fear.
"I'm not certain about this site; we'll see how the data shakes out," Cringan said after collecting some 20 carp, channel catfish and flathead catfish. "But I think we're probably going to revise, downgrade or eliminate a few of our advisories (on other bodies of water). We have seen some improvements in a number of areas."
For years, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has strongly discouraged consumption of fish from the Kansas River between Lawrence and Eudora, posting signs encouraging fishermen to eat their catch no more than once a month. The advisory is one of 12 the state has imposed on bodies of water throughout Kansas.
The reason: chlordane, a cancer-causing anti-termite pesticide that was banned in 1988 but still shows up at dangerous levels in fish samples taken from the Kansas River.
Cringan collects samples once a year from the river, for testing to determine whether the advisory should continue. Last week, at least, the fish appeared healthy to the eye.
"For the most part," he said. "You usually have to see pretty high contaminant levels before you start seeing tumors, deformities, things like that" in the fish.
That doesn't mean it's safe to make a regular meal of fish from the river, he said. But an occasional dinner might not be harmful.
"One meal a month is not a lot, but it's not never," Cringan said. "It doesn't pose any acute risk. It's the long-term consistent consumption that we're worried about."
During testing, lab workers look for 20 organic pollutants and four metals, but three contaminants pose a particular concern:
- Chlordane, which Cringan said tests showed was "stable to declining" in the river.
- PCBs, chemicals that were once used in electrical transformers and industrial equipment and often show up wherever chlordane is found. PCB levels also seem to have peaked, Cringan said.
- Mercury, attributed to coal-burning power plants and a rising concern among environmentalists. Cringan said mercury was a greater concern in lake fish than in river fish.
Even if chlordane declines in the Kansas River, Cringan warned, other pollutants might take their place. DDT, he said, is still detectable in some fish.
"That's been out of use for 30 years," Cringan said of DDT. "These things are very long-lived in the environment. As a society, we should be very careful how we use them."
A better future?
The fish taken from the river were put into a "live well" on the boat, where they thrashed around in a futile attempt to escape.
After returning to shore, Cringan took each fish and wrapped it in foil -- to be frozen until submitted to state and federal labs. Even after being wrapped, though, some of the carp continued to struggle, creating the odd sight of a wriggling foil package.
"We don't want any blood or trauma" when the fish are tested, Cringan said.
The samples will be submitted to state and federal labs in December. Testing will probably be done next spring.
"I got the results from last year about two weeks ago," Cringan said. "Three to nine months is typical."
Someday relatively soon, Cringan said, the fish in the Kansas River at Lawrence might be safe to eat.
"It's a good fishing spot, well-aerated (because of the Bowersock falls) and you have a good variety" of species, Cringan said. "It makes for a good fishery.
"Unfortunately, the city and our human influences have created some contaminants we're concerned about," he said. "Those contaminants will improve; even if we don't lift the advisory here this year, they will improve in the next few years."