Gowanus Bay anglers persist even when fish deemed unsafe by experts
These Red Hook fishermen have been hooked on this spot for years – and don’t care if the feds think it’s dangerous to eat what they catch.
The rag-tag group of amateur and experienced anglers have started their annual summer of fishing in the Gowanus Bay – even as the waters where they catch their dinner swirl with controversy.
Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials say eating the fish caught from the Erie Basin Pier is a health risk – a key reason behind the plans to designate the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site and clean it up.
But the fishermen – groups of men who fish together so often they’ve formed clubs, such as The Red Hook Pescaderos – think the safety warnings are all wet.
“I think I have a better shot at catching swine flu than catching a poisoned fish,” said Dan Roman, 45, who has fished off the pier at the end of Columbia St. his entire life. “I haven’t heard of anyone getting sick from it, and all I hang out with is these fisherman.”
The Gowanus Canal flows right into the bay waters by the pier. EPA testing found high levels of cancer-causing PCBs and metals such as arsenic in the water. When federal officials learned the fishermen were eating what they caught, it prompted them to move to get the canal cleaned up through the Superfund program.
“It’s a real health risk,” said EPA spokesperson Mary Mears. “We know the pollutants in these fish are harmful to humans. There’s no question.”
Opponents of the Superfund designation include the developer Toll Brothers, which plans to build 460 condos and townhouses along the banks of the canal. They contend the Gowanus’ waters pose no health threat and that a lengthy Superfund cleanup will drive away $400 million in development.
On warm days, the Erie Basin Pier fills up fast with fishermen playing music and enjoying beers as they wait patiently for their poles to bend, signalling a fish on the line. Most plan to go right on eating what they catch. “Of course I eat them. What else am I going to do with them?” said Larry Wiggins, 55, who regularly filets and bakes the bluefish and striped bass he catches off the pier. “I’ve been fishing here for 13 years and I ain’t dead yet.”
Others were more surprised by the news the water might be polluted.
“Oh man, I had striped bass for dinner last night,” said Zenothia Woodhouse, 26, as she sat under an umbrella watching her husband, Thadeus Roberts, fish. “I’m worried that I might get sick. They should have a sign out here warning people it’s polluted.”
There are currently no signs on the pier warning anglers of the dangers of consuming fish caught in the area.
At other piers around the city the state Health Department has posted signs warning anglers not to eat more than one meal a week of any fish caught in New York Harbor. Women of childbearing age and anyone under the age of 15 are advised to avoid eating fish from the area altogether.
“Once a month is good enough for me,” said retired city Sanitation worker Tony Buzzetta, 55, as he baited his hook. “I won’t do it on a daily basis or I’ll get sick. People up and down this pier should pay attention to that.”
By Jeff Wilkins