Are Hudson River Striped Bass Safe to Eat?

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by Martin Leung

Each year when striped bass season opens on April 15, thousands of fishermen either set off on boats or line the shore of the Hudson to catch New York State’s official saltwater fish.  Every striped bass fisherman in the city is out to catch the fish of a lifetime. These monsters can reach lengths of over 55 inches and weigh more than 70 pounds. The problem is that these Hudson River trophies are probably laced with dangerous chemicals.

From the 1940s to the 70s, the Hudson River was General Electric’s dumping grounds for PCBs, a chemical known to cause cancer. PCBs can take years to break down to a less toxic state and decrease in concentration. While a lot of work has been done to reduce the level of contaminants, and the river has shown signs of improvement, the Hudson is still far from safe.

Marine animals living in the Hudson are strongly affected by PCBs because of their constant exposure to the polluted water.  Fish are like sponges: they absorb whatever they come in contact with.  For one species in the Hudson, the Atlantic Tomcod, living in contaminated water has led to an evolutionary change that is dangerous for both the striped bass and the people who eat them.

The Atlantic tomcod population in the Hudson River has developed a resistance to the levels of PCBs in the water.  Tomcod in the Hudson are now missing a gene that would normally trigger a fatal reaction to the chemicals found in the water.  This resistance means the tomcod, which are only an inch or two long, continue to absorb dangerous chemicals into their bodies without feeling the effects.

Striped bass eat Atlantic tomcod. So when the hungry bass arrive at the Hudson River in the spring, they’re presented with rich feeding grounds full of these PCB resistant tomcod. The chemicals are transferred to the striped bass and the levels build up with each successive meal.  These toxins are sustained as they move up the food chain – and some of these fish end up on the dinner table.

The Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Department of Health have placed many guidelines on eating locally caught fish.  The general guideline says people can eat up to four one-half pound meals a month.  Infants, children under the age of 15, pregnant women and women under the age of 50 are recommended to avoid eating the fish at all.

Depending on where the fish are from, some species are entirely off limits due to severe levels of contamination. Striped bass migrate though, so it can be hard to identify where they’ve been.  A marine scientist from the Environmental Defense Fund suggests looking at the fish’s size.  A smaller fish will likely have fewer toxins and be safer to eat.  The NYS DOH suggests trimming, skinning and thoroughly cooking the caught fish before eating it.  Since the toxins like to reside in fat cells, remove as much fat as possible, especially along the back and belly to help reduce the levels of contaminants found in the fish.

If you’re worried about PCBs, but can’t resist pulling in a striped bass, you could always just throw it back.

 

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