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Washington Post Highlights Toxic Fish in Anacostia River

We have spent more than 15 years championing the need for cleaning up the Anacostia River (as well as the Potomac River and Rock Creek). And what better reason than the fact that several District and Prince George County residents depend on the river for sustenance. This disturbing (you’ll know why in a moment) Washington Post article details the hundreds of anglers who fish the river, pulling out catfish, rockfish and carp, according to a study released by several groups, including the Anacostia Watershed Society. AWS is one of several environmental groups we’ve represented in numerous legal challenges.

According to the Post, nearly 75 percent of anglers consume part of their catch, despite a strong advisory to catch and release. Here are the facts: catfish bottom-feed in the Anacostia, where their food is mixed in with a cancer-causing stew of toxic metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

This is not good. What is particularly bad about this scenario, is that of the nearly 75 percent who catch these contaminated fish, most share it with people back home, dispersing these fish sometimes to pregnant women and children.

Despite a strict advisory in bold letters warning residents not to eat catfish, carp or eel, many do. One angler quoted in the story said that when he mentioned throwing the catch back into the water, his niece implored him to bring the fish to her. He added that he never got hurt eating catfish and that he knows others who also haven’t suffered ill-effects.

This touches upon an issue the article mentions throughout: that many of these angler simply are not aware of the risks. Mike Bolinder, Anacostia Riverkeeper (and another client), said that many anglers who continue to consume the fish because they don’t fall ill are most likely thinking they don’t experience the immediate effects, whereas the major concern is more long-term—cancer. Bolinder said he has seen fishermen try to look for toxic fish by focusing on telltale signs of “dark blood, cloudy eyes and springy flesh.” They douse the fish in vinegar and milk for several days to remove the toxicity or fry it on a high flame to cook out metals. But none of this is based on science, he said. Which means: those methods probably aren’t doing much to make the fish any less toxic.

What would help? Enforcing a stronger clean water permit will reduce the excessive metals, suspended solids, oil and grease, and many other pollutants that head into the Anacostia and other rivers during rain storms. But strong action is also needed to address toxic contaminants in the riverbed, the result of decades of polluting activities. Although federal and local officials have known of this contamination for years, meaningful cleanup work has yet to start.