Catching Is Okay, But Eating Is Risky

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Are D.C. fish safe to eat?

The answer is mostly no.

Although improvements in water quality in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers have resulted in a bounty of bass, crappies and yellow perch, the D.C. Health Department still urges only "limited consumption" of fish caught there.

For years, the department has had in place a public health advisory against eating catfish, carp and eel from the Anacostia or Potomac because of chemical contaminants in the waters. Consumption of largemouth bass should be limited to a half-pound per month, sunfish and other fish to a half-pound per week.

"I personally wouldn't eat any fish from an urban area," said James Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, a nonprofit environmental group working to save the Anacostia River. He added, "Anytime you have a concentration of people and pavement, you're going to have toxins."

The problem is that concrete, instead of allowing rainwater to soak into the soil, collects grease, fertilizers and other pollutants. All of that then gets washed into the rivers through storm and sewer drains. The contaminants collect in the fatty tissue of fish, with bottom-feeders such as catfish particularly loaded.

"Ultimately, the river is the repository for all the chemicals we generate on the land," Connolly said. "They accumulate there; it's concentrated. And then the fish are living in that, eating in it, swimming in it."

The Anacostia is a worse offender than the Potomac because its watershed is entirely urban, he said. It does not drain easily because it is smaller and has been dredged so much over the years. Still, the Anacostia is home to 43 species of fish, he said, and the Potomac, even more.

"We are very far from making this better -- it's years," Connolly said. "What we need to do is control storm water runoff from the paved surfaces. It's a big challenge. What it requires is reengineering. But if we do that, the river will heal itself."

In April, a federal appeals court took a step toward reducing the Anacostia's pollution by ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to impose daily, instead of annual, pollution limits. But D.C. water and sewer officials said the ruling could mean costly improvements to the city's sewer system.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company