People who fish in the District of Columbia’s rivers can now safely eat more of what they catch — with one major exception — because of declining contaminant levels, according to the city’s environmental agency.
Updating a 22-year-old fish consumption advisory, the District Department of Energy and Environment recently doubled its recommended limits on how much of some fish can be eaten without risking long-term health consequences. For sunfish, the new safe cap is four servings a month, and for largemouth bass, two servings.
Two other species, bullhead catfish and channel catfish, are no longer on the District’s “do not eat” list, though anglers are advised not to consume more than one serving of each monthly.
But rockfish, or striped bass — the most widely eaten fish in the mid-Atlantic region — landed for the first time on the “do not eat” list. It was not mentioned in the District’s previous fish consumption advisory because until last year, rockfish caught there hadn’t been tested for contaminants, according to DOEE spokeswoman Julia Robey Christian.
The advisory does not apply to commercially caught fish that consumers buy in supermarkets or order at restaurants.
The relaxed fish consumption limits for most other fish result from the same testing last year, which found lower levels of toxic chemicals than had been measured when the last advisory was prepared in 1994.
“The decrease in our resident fish species’ chemical contaminant concentrations is encouraging,” DOEE Director Tommy Wells said. “But there is still more work to be done and we must continue our ongoing efforts to improve the health of our waterways.”
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are the main contaminant found in locally caught fish. Now banned, PCBs were used widely in electrical transformers and other equipment for much of the 20th century. But the legacy pesticides DDT and chlordane, also now banned for safety reasons, were detected in carp or eel at levels that exceed safe-consumption limits recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The District’s consumption advisory applies to fish caught in the capital city’s portions of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Consumers are urged to eat younger fish and cook them in ways that eliminate fats, where chemical contaminants are concentrated. And if anglers do eat the recommended limit of one fish, they're advised to avoid all other listed fish and shellfish for the month.
Maryland and Virginia have put out similar cautions on eating most locally caught fish.
Both states recommend, for instance, that people limit consumption of rockfish to between one and three servings a month, depending on the size of the fish — smaller fish have lower levels of PCB contamination — and the location they are caught. The rockfish advisories cover most of the Chesapeake Bay and all of its tidal rivers.
Among fish popular with anglers, white perch and sunfish, including bluegills, are subject the lightest advisories overall, although strong advisories for those species apply in a few places. American eel, carp and catfish have the strongest advisories overall.
Maryland also warns blue crab lovers not to eat the yellowish “mustard” inside the shell if the crab was caught in the Mid Bay, and to eat it “sparingly” if the crab was caught elsewhere. The state further recommends eating no more than six blue crabs a month taken from Baltimore Harbor or the Back, Middle or Patapsco rivers.
Virginia likewise urges consumers not to eat the mustard if crabs were caught in the South Branch of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. And the state advises eating no more than two servings a month of any fish taken from the James River, with “do not eat” warnings in effect there for carp and large blue and flathead catfish.