Beware What You Eat Out of the Anacostia

By Derrick Ward
|  Friday, May 27, 2011  |  Updated 2:30 PM EDT
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Derrick Ward reports on the new campaign warning fishermen about the health risks of eating fish caught in the Anacostia River.

Derrick Ward

Derrick Ward reports on the new campaign warning fishermen about the health risks of eating fish caught in the Anacostia River.

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Looking at the present day Anacostia River it’s hard to believe that tall ships once sailed its waters.  Farming along the river led to its channel being silted over in the mid-19th century.  It’s only in recent years that the river’s slow decline has started to reverse. 

“We’ve got bald eagles on the Anacostia River,” said Brent Bolin, Director of Advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society.  “We have a lot of catfish, we have eels, historically, this river was known for having amazing fish populations.”

But don’t grab your fishing rod just yet. There are other things in the river as well: toxins from industrial sites along the river, bacteria from sewer overflows, and wild and domestic animal waste.

This has led to an advisory regarding consuming fish taken from the Anacostia, especially bottom-feeders like catfish.

“Fishing is a wonderful activity,” said Christophe Tulou, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. “I love to do it, we’re just suggesting as a first instance catch and release.”

The Anacostia’s travails are not unlike those of other urban rivers, Tulou said.

Researchers have set out to survey those who regularly take fish from the Anacostia. What they’re finding is that as the area’s population changes, so has the makeup of those who fish the river. Officials are looking at ways to get the advisory out to a wider audience, including signage in different languages.

Still, some folks have fished the river for years and say they’ve seen no ill effects from eating their catch.

“I freeze them, skin them, clean them, let them soak, and then on Fridays we put a grill out here and cook them,” said Clark Watson, as he minded his poles on the river bank in East Potomac Park.  “The fish is good.”

But eating too much of it can be bad.

“The health risks are various,” said D.C.’s Director of the Office on the Environment. “They can affect mental functions but mostly it’s a cancer risk with some of these organic compounds.”

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