Fishing for Danger
This fresh fish is foul – and yet it’s ending up on dinner tables across the city.
Cash-strapped New Yorkers are ignoring health warnings not to fish for their meals in polluted local waters, where the catch of the day comes laced with cancer-causing PCBs and mercury.
“It’s food for my family,” explained Gabriel Gomez, 50, a struggling day laborer from Mexico found fishing recently off the 69th St. Pier in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Many desperate fellow fishermen are serving the toxin-laden fish up to five times a week, far more than state officials say is safe – especially for kids and women of child-bearing age.
Despite the dangers, there are no posted signs at most city piers or other popular fishing spots warning about the possible hazards. And state officials haven’t performed comprehensive testing on the fish in 10 years.
The Daily News tested fish caught in three locations and found high levels of cancer-causing PCBs and mercury.
Gomez, a married father of sons aged 12 and 15, was typical of the fishermen forced to choose sustenance over safety.
He stood in a driving rain, using a garbage bag as a poncho and a discarded water bottle attached to a string as a makeshift rod.
“This week, I only work one day,” he said. “Yesterday, fish. Today, fish. Not working too much, you see.”
Fishermen at Brooklyn’s Canarsie Pier said the number of anglers fishing for dinner has nearly doubled in the last year.
At Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens, recreational anglers said hungry beggars ask for spare fish instead of spare change.
“They come here with a plastic bag and hope that people put a fish in it,” said Leo Sanchez, 49, a retired janitor from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The News found the highest levels of mercury and PCBs in a striped bass caught off Gantry Plaza. The fish are highly prized among local fishermen for their size and flavor.
Bluefish samples from the Gowanus Harbor off Red Hook, Brooklyn, also had unsafe levels, tests conducted by Long Island Analytical Laboratories in Suffolk County showed.
A winter flounder caught off Hunts Point in the Bronx was slightly cleaner, with elevated levels of mercury but lower amounts of PCBs.
“These are clearly not fish you should be eating regularly,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, after reviewing the News’ findings. “I would not want to see kids or pregnant women eating these fish, especially the bass, on a regular basis.”
State health advisories warn that women of child-bearing age and children under 15 shouldn’t eat any fish from local waters.
Fishing for danger: Poor people driven to catch and eat toxin-filled species
Other adults should limit their intake to a single meal per month of striped bass and bluefish. Winter flounder can be eaten more often, up to once a week.
PCBs and mercury are most dangerous to unborn babies and young children and can cause problems to their developing organs. They also build up in women’s bodies and are passed on through breast milk.
Many of the destitute anglers said they had no idea the local fish posed a peril to their families.
“If it was poisonous, they’d put up a sign,” said Bronx fisherman Felipe Torres, 67, who fishes nearly every day at a scruffy spot at the end of Farragut Road – where The News caught the flounder it tested.
“I save money. Everybody’s complaining about how expensive food is,” added Torres, who takes home one or two striped bass or bluefish a week.
“Fishing is a way to bring extra food to the family,” said Torres, who shares his catch with two nieces in their 20s and several teenage nephews.
Other fishermen said they didn’t believe the warnings – or that they had no choice but to fish.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s contaminated, you have to eat,” said Alfonso Amendoño, 40, a day laborer from Ecuador.
Amendoño began fishing regularly for food off the 69th St. Pier this spring when work became painfully scarce.
“Since today we didn’t work, we don’t have money to buy food,” he said.
Hunter College public health expert Jack Caravanos said officials need to do more to ensure anglers know the risks from local fish – especially for women and kids.
“We need to attack this public health problem before recognizable disease pops up,” he said.
State officials said they already distribute thousands of brochures in English and Spanish around the city. Warning signs were installed at fishing spots in city parks.
Authorities acknowledge more is needed.
“We recognize that delivering the fish advisory message to a diverse population, particularly in … districts where a fishing license is not required, is a difficult task,” said state health spokeswoman Beth Goldberg.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation said it has tested only striped bass near the George Washington Bridge annually in recent years.
For other fish in other local waters, no tests were conducted for the past decade because of the DEC’s workload, said spokeswoman Lori Severino.
The warnings won’t stop Red Hook fisherman Thaddeus Roberts, who plans to keep catching and eating the local striped bass and bluefish.
“People like me can’t afford to buy food because the prices are so high,” said Roberts, 56, a retired electrician on disability. “I fry them up and eat them. Nothing has happened to me yet.”
BY John Lauinger and Elizabeth Hays