Safe to Eat Fish From Urban Waters? No One Knows

By ROWAN SHARP/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — On a recent afternoon, a few hours before dusk, Brian Watson, of South Providence, sat in a red fabric lawn chair on the wooden dock at India Point Park. Watson was fishing for bluefish and striped bass — “blues and stripers” — as he has for the past seven years, and he always eats his catch.

Does he worry about the safety of taking fish from heavily urban waters? “If the water wasn’t good, they wouldn’t let us fish,” he said.

Watson isn’t alone. Local urban fishermen and women can be found at city shores almost every evening. They fish at India Point Park, or further up the Seekonk River at the abandoned railroad bridge off Gano Street. They lean their poles against the railing on South Water Street, under Interstate 195. It’s a cozy scene: friends and family chatting and laughing, clustering around the poles when someone gets a bite, lone fishermen squinting calmly at the water.

The water itself is less picturesque; it’s not uncommon to see algae-greened plastic bottles and other trash bobbing in the current. But more threatening is the urban waters’ invisible burden: mercury and chemicals such as carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The popular fishing spot under I-195 connects to the Woonasquatucket River, and is therefore downstream from Centredale Manor, the 9.4-acre Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in North Providence, a known source of PCBs and dioxins.

Watson hadn’t heard about mercury or PCBs. Neither had Rafael Perez, of Washington Park, who fishes under I-195 with pieces of clam belly he buys on Thurbers Avenue. Perez has fished regularly there, where the Providence River nears Narragansett Bay, for two years. Like Watson, his fish end up on the dinner table.

“I see a lot of debris and garbage when the tide is coming in and out,” Perez said, but added that he doubts the fish are unsafe to eat. Occasionally, he sees televised safety advisories tell him not to fish. Logically, Perez figures if there’s no advisory, there’s no problem.

“Most of the time, they give you advice,” he said. “They tell you if there is any contamination in the water.”

No money to keep watch
But, how safe is it? And who is keeping track? In North Providence, directly around the Centredale Manor Superfund site, Stacy Greendlinger, EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the site, has directed an aggressive outreach campaign. In the past two weeks, Greendlinger has personally knocked on 60 to 100 North Providence doors to inform residents that it’s not safe to fish or swim in the Woonasquatucket River. EPA has erected signs to this effect and annually publishes a written advisory called “Woonasquatucket River Do’s and Don’ts.”

Farther downstream from Centredale Manor, however, the outreach campaign tapers off — to the point where Watson, Perez and others fishing were unaware of it. Dave Deegan, media contact for EPA’s Region 1 (New England), confirmed that, for more general issues of fish consumption safety, state health agencies and not the EPA are expected to “take the lead role.”

He noted that mercury, a perennial fish contaminant, is not a legacy of the Centredale site, but rather enters the weather system via smog from often distant industries, then precipitates out.

The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) gives a general outline of fish consumption safety in this year’s freshwater fishing abstract, the document that lists technical details such as catch limit and fishing license information. The document, available — though not prominent — on the DEM website (pdf), cites “preliminary” data from 1998; it suggests eating stocked freshwater fish and avoiding bass altogether, and identifies waters with high mercury levels. The DEM referred questions to the state Department of Health (DOH).

Robert Vanderslice, DOH’s chief of the office of environmental health risk assessment, said bluntly: “The last time the health department did any data analysis of fish was over 10 years ago.”

Asked whether he or the DOH was aware of the bustling culture of urban fishers, he said, “Not really. I have no data.”

And what of those TV advisories that urban fishers seem to rely on? The Department of Health hasn’t put out new fish consumption advisories in years. Vanderslice said that, unless the fishermen had misinterpreted a recent warning about blue-green algae, the notices they mentioned had come from other agencies.

“It’s not that the health department doesn’t support this and think it’s important,” Vanderslice said, noting that the DOH has never had the resources to take action, because no laws mandate regular monitoring of fish toxicity.

He said that when a law about environmental health does exist, the EPA provides funding to state agencies — as it does, for example, for asbestos cleanup. But no law means no state or federal funding. No funding means no data. No data means no public warnings.

And as far as other community outreach goes, there simply isn’t the manpower — Vanderslice hasn’t had a single staff member for five years. Before that, he had one.

He noted that the only states to have sophisticated and well-funded freshwater fish monitoring programs are the Great Lakes states, where fishing plays a significant economic role.

Fragmented monitoring
While the EPA doesn’t fund health department work on fish consumption, the EPA’s aquatic research facility in Narragansett conducts studies. The EPA’s Narragansett lab focuses on coastal waters, but many of Providence’s urban fishing spots verge on Narragansett Bay, and popular eating fish, such as striped bass, are saltwater species that move inland to spawn. This summer, Jim Lake of the EPA lab will collaborate with Vanderslice, sharing new data on mercury in fish tissue.

Also, growing public concern has lead community organizations and universities to do what government has not. This year, a group from Brown University will work with Rhode Island’s Narragansett tribe to gather newer and more complex data on fish toxicity in traditional tribal fishing areas, such as Mashapaug pond. And David Taylor, a Roger Williams University marine biology professor, has recently studied mercury in fish caught off India Point Park.

Vanderslice said he will use all these data sources to update the Department of Health’s fishing safety website and to issue the department’s first fish consumption advisories in years. The webpage currently identifies mercury as the sole danger with local fish consumption. Although the department is well aware of PCB contamination in fish, it offers no public information on the issue.

Another key piece of the puzzle is community outreach. With the Department of Health unfunded, this task — outside the immediate radius of Centredale Manor, that is — has been largely taken up by non-governmental organizations such as the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, a group of concerned residents, government representatives, and local nonprofits that works for the river’s restoration.

Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the council, said the group has waged an active campaign to disseminate EPA’s “Dos and Don’ts of the Woonasquatucket River.” Don’ts include swimming and, of course, eating fish caught there. Outreach strategies include signs, leaflets, classes held at public parks and youth programs.

But Lehrer said it’s difficult to get the message across. People are “definitely fishing in the Woonasquatucket and I’m sure that they’re eating the fish from time to time,” she said. “I was hanging out at Riverside Park two weeks ago and I saw some people fishing there and taking the fish home.” Lehrer approached the fishers, warned them about safety, and suggested they catch and release.

Little Rhody has a big relationship with water. The Ocean State’s famously long coastline is just the beginning — the state is decorated with ponds, rivers and estuaries. Fishing and swimming are at the heart of Rhode Island’s tourism industry. But some of the state’s waters are so troubled that it will be years before we can do those things safely.

Lehrer said water quality in the Woonasquatucket River will improve when the Narragansett Bay Commission completes its current project of revamping the sewer system to minimize sewage overflow, another key contaminant. But river sediment, with its long-term industrial toxins, presents a different challenge. The Centredale site, the subject of EPA study for 20 years, represents a $60 million clean-up project that’s yet to begin, according to Lehrer.

“We have got to figure out a way to make this river swimmable and fishable, but we are many, many years away from that right now,” she said.

At the moment, though, urban fishing continues as usual. Lehrer’s group has mitigated danger along the Woonasquatucket by posting signs, but no signs are posted on South Water Street, where Perez fishes. Nor are there warnings at India Point, where, down the dock from Watson, Ethan Schar kept an eye on his fishing pole. Schar lives in Costa Rica, but has traveled regularly through Providence during the past two years, always stopping to fish. He often eats his catch, saying, “I figure they’re okay. Some people say the fish are contaminated, but I don’t think so.”