Samuel Edwards has several theories about why the fish weren’t biting last Friday. “The noise from the bridge drives them away,” he offers, gesturing north toward the Williamsburg, which is swaddled in scaffolding. Apparently, the construction project under way sends unfriendly vibrations to the fish through the water. Or maybe it’s the moon. “They never bite when the moon is full,” he pronounces sagely.
Whatever the reason, Edwards feels fairly sure it’s not pollution. “The water is getting cleaner and cleaner,” he says, looking out over the East River and idly petting his dog, Pooch. Just yesterday, his friend Sammy caught a 36-inch striped bass right here in East River Park. And Edwards regularly catches bluefish, striped bass, and porgies, which he has no qualms about frying up and eating.
City fishing wasn’t always this way. “Used to be you could see the stripers diseased all over,” he says, referring to the bass. “And now you don’t see all that [human] feces you used to.”
Still, even with sewage treatment plants filtering what flows into the river (these days, “floaters” make it in only after heavy storms, which force solid waste through the unfiltered overflow ducts), many worry that the rivers directly surrounding the city—and the fish that come from them—are dangerously polluted. Because most of the people who eat or sell fish from the contaminated local rivers are poor and from communities of color, a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association labeled the hazards of urban fishing as yet another form of environmental racism.
The East and Hudson rivers are awash in troubles far worse than old tires and occasional bodies. Mercury levels in both rivers are higher than recommended. Pesticides such as chlordane and DDT also taint the water.
Perhaps the most dangerous pollutants are the PCBs, long-lasting, oily chemicals that flowed downstream from the General Electric plant in Hudson Falls years ago, turning the Hudson into the nation’s longest Superfund site. PCBs are also present in the East River and even in some fish caught in local marine waters. (Fish in the salty New York Harbor could have been swimming through the toxic Gowanus Canal just days before.)
Healthwise, that means that eating fish from the city’s rivers could be a cancer risk (the PCB-cancer connection is proven only in animals, and officially only suspected in humans). PCB-laden fish have been clearly linked to fertility problems in both men and women, as well as developmental lags in children. Even children whose only exposure to PCBs was in the womb can end up with reduced IQs and symptoms that resemble those of lead poisoning.
It’s unclear just how much fish it takes to cause such horrors. The state health department recommends that adult men eat only one meal a month of bluefish, striped bass, or perch caught from either the East River or the Hudson. Everyone is warned to avoid eels from the East River, bottom feeders that accumulate the most PCBs. And women and young children are advised never to eat any fish from local fresh waters.
Nevertheless, 10 percent of women recently surveyed in an East Harlem public assistance office said they eat fish from local waters, according to Anne Golden, an environmental epidemiologist at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who conducted the pilot study. Golden also surveyed anglers from both rivers and found that half eat more than one meal a week of what they caught, far more than the levels recommended by the health department.
Local environmental groups are just beginning to tackle the issue in poor neighborhoods, where poverty forces people to give local—free—fish the benefit of the doubt. Members of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) hand out their recently printed brochure “Toxic Fish/Pescado Toxico” along the uptown river banks. WE ACT’s executive director, Peggy Shepard, says that women shouldn’t eat the fish and that if men eat it, they should discard the skin and guts, which have the highest concentrations of PCBs.
When Shepard approaches Carlos Jusino on the Hudson by West 125th Street, he assures her that he doesn’t eat what he catches. “They don’t look good,” he says, shaking his head as a shoe floats by his bobbing fishing line. Many others are less cautious, of course. Some of Jusino’s own friends eat eels from the Hudson. And then there are those who buy fish from the many unofficial fish vendors and just don’t know where it’s coming from.
Not far from where Jusino fishes to pass the time, another group of fishermen cast their rods into the Hudson and dunk a crab trap of raw chicken into the frothy water. Inside their van is an open cooler, poised to ferry whatever they catch from the city’s edges to the center of someone’s plate.