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Local Fish: To Eat Or Not To Eat


THE CONTENTIOUS ISSUE of the cleanup of the Hudson River shows little sign of abating, and there still are questions about the safety of eating fish caught upriver or down. The Hudson River Fish Advisory Outreach Project, charged with keeping the public informed about the safety (or not) of eating Hudson River aquatic species, entered its third year of funding in June. Administered by the state Department of Health (DOH), the project partners with many organizations to help deliver information about the safety of eating from the Hudson.

“PCB is the contaminant of concern for most of the Hudson for the fish advisories,” says Tony Forti, Research Scientist with the DOH. “PCBs are also a problem in the crab tamale as well. There is some issue with cadmium, particularly with crabs in the Hudson.”

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were first discovered in the Hudson in 1975, the result of the discharge of over a million pounds of the highly toxic compounds into the river between 1947 and 1977 from General Electric’s capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward. Clean up of this, the largest Superfund site in the nation, has been highly contested and volatile; dredging of a 40-mile stretch of the river between Fort Edward and Troy only began in 2009.

“As you go farther down the river, there’s less contamination, and you can eat a number of species up to once a month, and then some fish you can eat once a week, which is advice we have in the entire state, actually,” notes Regina Keenan, project coordinator with the DOH. “But still, women and children down to the tip of Manhattan shouldn’t eat fish from the Hudson River [at all] because the PCB levels are too high.”

“Sustenance fishing”—with a license or without—along the 100+ miles of Hudson River shoreline may be more widespread than most people think, and getting the advisory message to everyone presents a challenge, to say the least. The Fish Advisory Outreach Project coordinates efforts with environmental advocates, local health officials, park rangers and community members to reach as many people as possible. These community partners receive materials to distribute, such as a bilingual brochure sent to 200 food pantries last year. “We recognize we’re not giving people a substitute meal—we’re not in a position to do that, unfortunately,” Keenan says. “We’re at least letting people know that if they prepare it a certain way they can get a lot less PCBs in a meal, which is helpful. Unlike mercury, which is the contaminant commonly found in swordfish and a lot of commercial fish, PCBs concentrate heavily in the fat of the fish, so if you trim it—if you filet the fish—you will reduce the PCB levels that you’re going to take in by about half.”

How many fish can’t you eat?

The New York State Department of Health (DOH) issues annual regional advisories regarding the safety of eating wild fish and game bagged in the state. Specifically regarding fish, the agency has identified a number of toxins present in the environment that find their way into fish and shellfish (mainly crabs) that could cause health problems if eaten over a long period. The predominant concern is the presence of PCBs and mercury, mainly in the fatty areas of the fish and in the tomalley (that icky green stuff) in crabs; there are warnings about the presence of cadmium, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxin and mirex, as well. Detailed health advisory booklets are given to everyone who obtains a state fishing license (the material also is distributed through outreach projects in communities and schools).

As for the Hudson, although the amount of contamination varies by location (the heaviest loads of PCB contamination occur in the upper Hudson between Corinth and Troy, for example, but PCBs, cadmium and dioxin are found throughout the river’s length, right on down to Staten Island. In very general terms, the DOH advises that women under 50 and children under 15 should not eat any fish whatsoever caught from the Hudson and its tributary waters. Recommendations for the number of meals of specific fish species or crabs everyone else can eat vary by location, but in general, the following species are on the limitation list (either eat only once a month to eat only four times a month, depending on where the fish is caught): alewife, blueback herring, rock bass, yellow perch, channel catfish, gizzard shad, white catfish, Atlantic needlefish, bluefish, brown bullhead, carp, goldfish, largemouth bass, rainbow smelt, smallmouth bass, striped bass, walleye, white perch, and crab tomalley and crab cooking liquid.

For complete and detailed information, the DOH booklet, Chemicals in Sportfish and Game: 2010-2011 Health Advisories is available in PDF format online; (www.nyhealth.gov/environmental/outdoors/fish/fish.htm) copies of all the specific health advisory booklets can be ordered free, singly or in bulk, using the online order form linked to the page above.

Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Rockland County has built a strong program around the project, visiting schools, developing signage and other materials, and creating events. Environmental educator Chuck Stead is revising the presentation he makes to schools to help address identified gaps.

“They had no idea that the Hudson River had a fishing economy,” Stead says, so the new version of his presentation incorporates fishery history and a history of PCBs. The finished project will include a short film commissioned by Rockland CCE illustrating how to filet fish and how to remove the tamale from a blue crab. The plan is to distribute 1,200 DVDs to anglers in the village of Haverstraw this summer.

Stead attributes much of the success of Rockland CCE outreach efforts to three Americorps volunteers assigned to the project each year. Their efforts allow development of innovative projects, such as placement of a poster and flyers on buses last year. The bus literature is installed this year, as well, for the months of May and June. The volunteers also developed the River Romp, a one-day event on the fish advisory theme, including a series of educational games for kids that includes animal identification and fishing activities.

“Each game offers a little bit of education around the advisory,” Stead says. “This is [for] the children, mind you, but they’re with their parents—about PCPs, which is kind of neat. The little children walk away knowing that the PCBs are not a good thing, and that’s why you need to be careful of what you eat from the river. The Department of Health on the state level was thrilled because it’s been very difficult to bring that rather technical concern down to the primary school level.”

When the program was begun two years ago, the general consensus was that, even though it was important to get the advisory information out to the public, few people actually ate what they caught from the river. Now, however, “We’re discovering that a lot of people still eat fish from the Hudson,” Stead observes. “There are large sections of certain communities that, in fact, are reliant on fish from the Hudson.”

Asian, Hasidic and Salvadoran communities are among those that regularly eat Hudson River fish, Stead notes, though he admits accessing those communities can be quite a challenge. “We’re also finding that there’s a large percentage of middle- and upper-class folks down in Piermont that regularly eat blue crab from the Hudson,” he says. “Clearwater cleaned up the Hudson in terms of the visual stuff—what people used to see floating in the river— but this is more of an invisible contaminant, and I don’t think folks make that connection.”

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!