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Public Health Assessment
Fish and Shellfish Evaluation,
Isla de Vieques Bombing Range,
Vieques, Puerto Rico

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June 27, 2003
Prepared by:

Federal Facilities Assessment Branch
Division of Health Assessment and Consultation
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry


ATSDR's evaluation is an assessment of public health (i.e., whether it is safe to eat Vieques fish and shellfish). This document is not an ecological assessment of the integrity of the natural systems on Vieques.

The residents of Vieques are concerned that military training activities at the Live Impact Area (LIA) are adversely affecting their health. Previous studies have reported some indication of heavy metals in fish and shellfish, which are eaten by the residents of Vieques. To address this pathway, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) worked with the US Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Response Team (EPA/ERT) to collect and analyze fish and shellfish from the coastal waters and near shore land on Vieques to determine whether fish and shellfish muscle tissues contain levels of heavy metals and explosives compounds that would adversely affect public health. Based on research by Universidad Metropolitana (Caro et al. 2000), discussions with the petitioner and residents of Vieques, and information provided in the Vieques Special Commission Report (Government of Puerto Rico 1999 as cited in Navy 2000b), ATSDR collected grouper (Epinephelus sp.), snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus and Lutjanus sp.), parrotfish (Scaridae family), grunt (Haemulon sp.), goatfish (Mullidae family), land crabs (Cardisoma guanhumi), queen conch (Strombus gigas), and spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) as commonly caught and consumed species. In addition, to address a specific community concern, ATSDR collected one honeycomb cowfish (Lactophrys polygonia) from the fish market. For reference, Appendix E contains pictures of the fish species collected.

From July 16-20, 2001, these commonly consumed fish and shellfish were collected from six locations on Vieques. Fish were collected from reefs to the north of the LIA (Location 1), from a sunken Navy vessel to the south of the LIA (Location 2), from reefs to the south of Esperanza (Location 3), from reefs to the north of Isabel Segunda (Location 4), from a fish market in Isabel Segunda (Location 5), and from reefs to the west of the Laguna Kiani Conservation Zone on the west end of Vieques (Location 6). Lobsters were collected from Locations 1, 3, and 5. Conch were collected from seagrass beds located in close proximity to Locations 1, 2, 3, and 6. Land crabs were collected from Locations 1, 2, and 6. Fiddler crabs were collected from Locations 1 and 2.

During the sampling event, the EPA/ERT divers noted that all sample locations supported diverse populations of marine organisms that appeared healthy and that with very few exceptions, most of the organisms collected appeared to be healthy.

Several metals were detected in the fish and shellfish from Vieques. Using this data, ATSDR evaluated three specific exposure situations for both adults and children living on Vieques:

  1. According to the survey conducted by Universidad Metropolitana, almost half the residents of Vieques eat fish one or two times a week. However, about 16% responded that they eat fish five or more times a week (Caro et al. 2000). To be most protective of the entire residential population, ATSDR evaluated whether eating fish and shellfish from Vieques on a daily basis would result in harmful health effects.
  2. Individual metals in individual species of fish and shellfish varied from location to location (ATSDR 2002). Therefore, ATSDR evaluated whether eating fish and shellfish from any of the sample locations would result in harmful health effects.
  3. Universidad Metropolitana reported that yellowtail snapper was the most commonly caught and consumed species of fish (Caro et al. 2000). In addition, several Vieques fishermen and residents indicated to ATSDR that snapper was more commonly sought after, caught, and consumed than any other species of fish. Therefore, ATSDR evaluated whether eating snapper on a daily basis would result in harmful health effects.
Heavy metals were detected in the fish and shellfish, however, the concentrations were too low to pose a human health concern.

ATSDR concluded that:

  1. It is safe to eat a variety of fish and shellfish every day.

  2. It is safe to eat fish and shellfish from any of the locations sampled, including from around the LIA and the sunken Navy target vessel.

  3. It is safe to eat the most commonly consumed species, snapper, every day.

Historical Document

This Web site is provided by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) ONLY as an historical reference for the public health community. It is no longer being maintained and the data it contains may no longer be current and/or accurate. The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
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