Anacostia Park, June 2012. Photo by the author.

At least 17,000 people in the lower Anacostia watershed eat fish from the river every year. These fish spend years swimming in polluted water and resting and feeding amidst sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals.

This contamination is very likely ending up on people’s dinner plates. In many cases, the people eating this fish have limited resources and few alternatives for safer food.

The Washington City Paper recently discussed these findings from a report, Addressing the Risk, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, Chesapeake Bay Trust, and other local entities assisted in the report.

The team set out to understand how large the subsistence fishing population was, and how much they knew about the river pollution and the risk of eating fish from it. We did not expect to find so many people sharing the fish so widely.

How do you refuse an elderly neighbor on food stamps, when she asks you to bring back a fish? Or if you’ve been unemployed for a while, but need to feed your family, how do you resist a free, local meal? If you’re hungry today, is it worth the risk that the chemicals in the fish might cause cancer in 20 years?

Many fishermen are in fact aware that the river is polluted and that the fish reflect that. They have informal methods for screening the fish, and many will throw back a fish with lesions, cloudy eyes, or other outward signs of sickness. But those methods are further evidence that the fishermen think the fish are only contaminated on the outside, and don’t address the PCBs hiding in the fatty tissue within.

Even if they don’t plan to eat the fish themselves, the pleas of a neighbor in need or a passing child are irresistible. The fishermen feel like they have helped in their generosity.

Obviously the long-term solution is to clean up the river. We should be able to paddle, fish, and even swim in the river without worrying about damaging our health. Cleaning up the six legacy toxic sites and reducing polluted stormwater runoff (which carries toxins from roads, parking lots, and other hard surfaces) will go a long way.

In the meantime, we need to do more to educate everyone, and particularly at-risk groups like women of childbearing age, about the condition of the river and the risks of consuming its fish. It is also incumbent on leaders in DC and Maryland to improve access to other healthy food. Generally speaking, fish is a very healthy protein. Could the DC area support aquaculture, perhaps in a community-supported model?

AWS and its partners will be holding a community meeting in Ward 7 in early December to answer questions about the research and begin the discussion of how we solve the problem. We hope councilmembers and community leaders will come and pledge to be part of the solution.

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Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen.