Festival del Rio Anacostia

A young visitor at the 2018 Festival del Rîo Anacostia tastes fish that was prepared in a cooking demonstration aimed at promoting safer preparation and consumption of fish from the polluted Anacostia River. (Michelle Williams / Chesapeake Research Consortium)

Despite longstanding government alerts about the potential dangers of eating fish caught in the Anacostia River, some anglers aren’t getting the message. Part of the disconnect, it seems, lies in the ways agencies and organizations have shaped their warnings.

Communications staff at the Chesapeake Bay Program, the state-federal partnership leading the Bay restoration effort, has been testing a very different strategy over the last few years. Instead of scaring people away from fish consumption, the effort has encouraged them to catch and eat the fish — but more safely. And they are sharing that message, geared toward a Spanish-speaking audience, in a variety of formats that people are more likely to see and understand.

The Anacostia River winds nearly 9 miles from Prince George’s County, MD, through the eastern wards of Washington, DC, before emptying into the Potomac River. About 70% of that drainage basin is covered by homes, roads, factories, office complexes and other types of development, making the Anacostia one of the most urban rivers in the mid-Atlantic. The river was little more than a dumping ground for decades, and the continuing presence of PCBs and other toxic metals and chemicals in the sediments make it a health risk to eat many fish caught there.

Yet an estimated 17,000 people eat fish from the river each year, according to an Anacostia Watershed Society study. Many are African American or Hispanic. If anglers don’t eat the fish themselves, they often share their catch with local families, the research showed.

Although warnings to avoid or limit fish consumption are typically posted and published in multiple languages, people from Latin America often remain unaware of them because such pronouncements don’t exist in their native countries, said Ruby Stemmle, founder and CEO of EcoLatinos, a DC area environmental group.

“They come from places where there are no restrictions,” she said. “I’m not saying the rivers aren’t contaminated, but there are no restrictions.”

A survey conducted in 2011 by the research firm Opinionworks found that 20% of people interviewed while fishing along the river were unaware of the health risks. But that total zoomed to 53% among those who spoke Spanish at home.

“Fish consumption advisories are out there, but they’re not being heeded,” said Caitlyn Johnstone, an outreach and communications specialist for the Bay Program.

The program hired a consultant for $50,000 to look into what was going wrong and how to fix it. The analysis by Opinionworks, based on dozens of interviews with anglers, found that many anglers couldn’t understand the written advisories or were uninterested in trying. It also found that most messaging is too technical. Often perceived as top-down, restrictive and confusing, the warnings are dismissed or go unnoticed.

The proposed solution, though, surprised many: Celebrate fishing and stress ways to eat the fish more safely.

Eating largemouth bass caught in the Anacostia? The idea was blasphemous among some of Johnstone’s Bay Program colleagues.

“We said, ‘You’re going to do what?’” recalled Greg Allen, toxics coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program office. “Caitlyn said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to show how to safely prepare a fish.”

Johnstone and her team have created an outreach strategy that now includes a poster, recipe cards, cooking demonstrations and videos.

The poster has developed into a story in miniature: four panels following a fish’s journey from catch to dinner table. It shows a brown-skinned man catching a fish against a backdrop of smoky factories; a sign beside him shows the fish he’s keeping with a green checkmark. He is then seen handing it to a pregnant woman in front of her home. The third panel depicts her holding the cuts of meat in her kitchen while a man filets another fish. “Cut off the skin and fat before cooking,” the caption advises, referring to the parts of the fish where toxics tend to accumulate. “Discard the oil after cooking.”

Johnstone said she has been tinkering with the poster’s messaging and imagery for a few years, often after getting feedback from the fishermen themselves.

“Even if you couldn’t read the words, you could get a sense of what it was trying to say by just looking at the pictures,” Johnstone said, adding that the Bay Program plans to make the poster widely available throughout the watershed in coming months.

In 2018 and 2019, Johnstone brought the message to life by hosting cooking demonstrations at the Festival del Rio Anacostia, an annual event in Bladensburg, MD, hosted by EcoLatinos and geared toward increasing engagement in the Latinx community. It was a consistent crowd-pleaser, she said.

“You can smell the fish and you can hear the sizzle in the cast iron,” said Johnstone, a former sous-chef in a corporation’s cafeteria. “I would just continuously cook and talk about toxic contaminants. And every time it would happen, you would get these crowds of several people deep waiting to get their little taste of fish.”

This year’s festival on Oct. 24 was online because of the pandemic. So, Johnstone made short videos in English and Spanish. She narrated this time; the cooking was handled by Hugo Bonilla, chef and owner of Riviera Tapas Bar in Riverdale, MD. 

Contaminants such as PCBs and mercury are rampant across the Bay’s tributaries – not just the Anacostia, Johnstone said. She hopes her efforts become a model for organizations in areas where authorities have struggled to warn people of the potential dangers lurking inside the fish they catch. A guidebook will soon be available for local governments and community activists interested in spreading the word.

The graphics and other information produced under the effort aren’t geographically specific to the Anacostia, the EPA’s Allen said. That way, they can be used and reused around the watershed. For information, contact Johnstone at 410-267-9874 or cjohnstone@chesapeakebay.net.

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