“The people who wrote that don’t know a thing about fishing,” said Richard “Friday” Grayson, 69, a retired ironworker and pier regular.
“I eat the whole fish,” said Grayson, of Camden, who mostly catches catfish and striped bass. “I’ve been eating them all my life, so why should I stop now?”
To scientists, routinely taking one’s catch home is the health equivalent of smoking and sunbathing — an anachronistic practice to be discouraged.
Yet on waterways around Philadelphia, the practice persists due to skepticism, generational and cultural differences, and, for poorer families, the lure of virtually free food.
Last month, New Jersey expanded its list of consumption advisories for certain fish caught in state lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters. Pennsylvania, which revised its list in February, maintains a blanket warning to anglers not to eat the fish they catch more than once a week, but warns that a number of species and areas require a far more conservative approach.
Paradoxically, U.S. waterways are cleaner than ever, say scientists and environmentalists, a result of stricter rules on industrial dumping since the federal Clean Water Act became law in 1972.
But as the effect of environmental toxics has become better understood, government testing of fish has expanded to new bodies of water, said a spokesman for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The primary concern is industrial-era pollutants, specifically mercury, dioxin, and PCBs, which when consumed by humans through fish can cause health issues including birth defects, cancer, and neurological disorders. Pregnant women and young children are advised to eat virtually no recreationally caught fish.
“The rivers are a lot cleaner than they were 40 years ago, and the fish are coming back. From that perspective, your ability to go catch a fish in your backyard and eat it is improving,” said Michael Gochfeld, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
“But old industrial contamination remains an issue. If you were eating the fish once a week, or once a month, it probably wouldn’t have an effect. But if you’re eating more than that, there can be risks.”
Where anglers fall in the debate over whether to eat their catch depends largely on their socio-economic status, environmentalists and government officials say.
On the east bank of the Schuylkill on Wednesday morning, two men fished the frothing water below the Fairmount Dam.
William Papa, who had taken the day off from his insurance job, said his interest was purely sport. He tosses the fish he catches back in the hope he might catch them again.
“I don’t eat what I catch in the Poconos,” either, said Papa, 31, of South Philadelphia.
But come dusk, the area around the dam is frequented by immigrants who hope to snag dinner, fishermen said.
Vietnamese native Long Bao Tran, 75, caught fish around Pennsauken for years, bringing home enough to feed himself and his family.
“I ate them almost every day, and what I couldn’t finish I would give away or put in the freezer,” he said through a translator.
New Jersey is in the midst of an awareness campaign targeting residents from Asia and Latin America. In neighborhoods along the Passaic River in Newark and Elizabeth, government workers post signs and hand out fliers in multiple languages about the dangers of eating fish from the waterway, near where the herbicide Agent Orange once was manufactured, a spokesman for the state environmental agency said.
“There are many families who are bringing fish home not because they want to, but because they have to so they have enough food for the kids,” said Maya van Rossum, who heads the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group. “These are not people wanting to be subjected to toxins.”
The debate extends beyond matters of economics and health to protecting tradition: After a tough fight to land a fish, eating what they’ve caught is a summertime idyll for many sportsmen and women.
For years the sportfishing industry has pressed for new consumption advisories, which exist in virtually every state, maintaining the warnings are overly cautious, said Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which represents anglers and the industry.
“A lot of the warnings recently are about mercury content,” he said. “It’s a naturally occurring element, and I’ve never known anyone to be felled by mercury poisoning from fish. I wouldn’t call it overblown hysteria, but the way society is today there’s restrictions and advisories on everything.”
Harvey Yenkinson, 62, a veterinarian from Pocopson Township, Chester County, runs a boat out of Cape May and goes ocean fishing in his spare time. New Jersey’s consumption advisories extend even to fish caught offshore.
In the summer, Yenkinson regularly feasts on striped bass, which the state says he shouldn’t eat more than once a month, and on black drum.
He is skeptical of government studies on fish toxicity. But, Yenkinson says, he isn’t about to start making daily meals of the fish he reels in.
“A word to the wise: everything in moderation,” he said.
Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fisherman Wally Kanney talks about casting his rod in the Schuylkill at www.philly.com/fisheating Eating What You Catch
For the latest New Jersey and Pennsylvania fish-consumption advisories, go to www.philly.com/njfish and www.philly.com/pafish