Consuming Fish in Philadelphia: Are You Ready to Take your Chances?

Hello, Readers!
As Spring comes and the flowers blossom, so does fishing! It's around this time of the year that different Species of fish start to spawn. Others start to migrate from salt to freshwater, such as American and Hickory Shads, and even the Striped Bass. Shallow creeks that were dead during Winter time start to regain life, as smaller game-fish start to sunbath and feed in the shallows.
In other words, this is the time of the year when fishing gets really good in Philadelphia! For many, it also means the time to take their catches home for a great meal. I believe that some of you guys know about that feeling, right? The feeling of catching the fish, and taking it with you for a good meal. The feeling of fending for oneself, and providing a meal that is as fresh as it can be, directly from the water to the table!
It's within these guidelines that many Species of fish in Philadelphia are taken for human consumption during Spring and Summer. Among the most common Species: the stocked Trout (Rainbow, Brown, Golden Rainbow); Bluegills and Redbreast Sunfish; Rock Bass, White and Yellow Perch; Channel Catfish; Common Carp. However, how safe is it to actually eat what comes out of our waters nowadays? Is it even safe to trust our waters?!
This is the topic for today: Fish Consumption in Philadelphia. Are you really ready to take your chances with it? Can you eat the fish that you catch? In other words, are they truly safe to eat? If not, what are the possible consequences, health wise?
These are a couple questions that will be answered throughout the post.
I'll start with a little bit of history. I believe that it's important for you guys to have not only an example of the bad history of Philadelphia in relationship to our waters, but also the "picture" of how, when, and where the pollution of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers actually came from. I see people often criticizing the Schuylkill for being dirty, and some even fazed as they see me pull a fish out of there (thinking that there's no life in that River). So, let's take a little time travel, back to the 1870's! This is actually a little essay that I did for one of my College classes in the past:
The Schuylkill, back in the days of the industrial bloom in Philadelphia.

"Before I even start to talk about fishing, I would like to mention a little bit of the Schuylkill River’s history, especially because not a lot of people are familiar with it. Many people have asked me this specific question before: “Are there really fish in this River?” Yes, there are. However, unfortunately, a large portion of the population in Philadelphia still believes that the Schuylkill River is a “sewer;” a River that is so polluted that no aquatic life can be found in it. In reality, this ideology dates back to the 1800’s, when the city of Philadelphia had finally decided to use the Schuylkill River as a source of water. At that time, the River was perhaps at its cleanest state, and full of life.

As the decades passed, however, the River attracted many businesses. By 1870’s, the Schuylkill River was the center of the industrial bloom in the city of Philadelphia. More than 36 million dollars were spent on manufacturing along the River, and more than 40 thousand individuals’ incomes were coming straight from jobs - close to the River. Eventually, the consequences of the industrial bloom came right after: all kinds of different wastes were thrown directly into the Schuylkill River without any governmental penalties. As a result, at a certain point in history – around the 1880’s – the water department issued a law against waste disposal in the Schuylkill. However, the law was easily overthrown by the business owners with the argument that “too many people depended on those businesses to survive.”

From the 1880’s to 1900, the River was at its worst state. It was heavily polluted with almost no signs of life, and its water was barely potable. As a consequence, more than 16 thousand Philadelphians died of Typhoid Fever due to the poor quality of the water. The water department was very concerned with it; therefore, everything changed when Chlorine was introduced in 1902, finally creating “potable filtrated water” for the population.

From that time onwards, the River slowly started to heal. The industrial bloom passed as urban sprawl occurred, and people started to be more conscious about the quality of our drinking water. As one can see, the history of the Schuylkill River was very turbulent, and it’s very valid to state that the River was dead at a certain time-frame in history. Little by little, different organizations worked together to make the River cleaner, and little by little different Species of fish started to return to the Schuylkill River. After a whole century, the Schuylkill River is still not as good as it was in the 1800’s, before the industrial bloom. However, we are much more conscientious about the quality of our waters, and that directly influences the fishing!

This portion of the text was for readers to see that there’s no “quick fix” when it comes to our waters. Nowadays, a lot of people look for an “easier way;” however, most of the times progress comes from hard labor, taking a long while. We should all be proud that there are so many different types of fish currently swimming and living in the Schuylkill River, and we definitely want to be sure to not make the same mistakes that the past generations did. The idea is to take from Mother Nature and take care of the same at the same time. Taking without giving will only bring lack of sustainability for the future generations to come.
After reading this portion of my Essay, which was entitled "Fishing the 'Sewers' of Philadelphia," what is your resolution on the Schuylkill River? Would you actually eat the fish that came out of it?
Well...I can tell you that it depends! Certain Species of fish bring less health risks than others, and we will see the "why" of it further below. However, at this point, one should notice already that eating fish from urban waters can be extremely dangerous for one's health, especially if over consumed.
The Hazards of Consuming Fish in Philadelphia and its Consequences
When it comes to fish consumption, there are two main components that are hazardous for the human body. One of them is a "cliché" nowadays - the so called "Heavy Metals." The second one is a little bit less known; although, word of it has been spreading from person to person, and more information about it has become available - the so called PCBs (PolyChlorinated Byphenils). 
A "warning" sign at Cooper River Lake, NJ.
Therefore, the answer to the main question of this topic - "are fish safe to consume?" - is rather simple: fish can be consumed as far as its levels of PCBs and Heavy Metals are within the safe levels defined by certain governmental agencies. For example, the PA Fish and Boat Commission has a Fish Consumption Guideline to help anglers determine if their fish is safe or not to eat.
Since this is OUR (Philadelphians) bible for fish consumption, I'll use this Fish Consumption Guideline as the base for my arguments here. All my tips and suggestions, including interpretation, will come from the PA Boat and Commission Fish Consumption Guideline, which, sincerely, is the most trusted source on the Internet.

Let's go through some important passages of it together:

"While the levels of these unavoidable chemical contaminants are usually low, they could potentially be a health concern to pregnant and breast-feeding women, women of childbearing age, children and individuals whose diet consists of a high percentage of fish."

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

In other words, don't feed our local caught fish to pregnant and breast-feeding women, young women, children, and any person whose diet is mainly based on fish! Now...let's think through this carefully and ask ourselves a question: what is the percentage of young women, children, and people that eat a lot of fish in an angler's life? Some anglers want to take their catch home and have a hearty meal with his/her family, which most of the times include children and "women of childbearing age."

It's also interesting to note the portion that says "individuals whose diet consists of a high percentage of fish." A huge percentage of anglers that tend to harvest fish from our waters are in that group. Only a few people will really follow the guidelines, and bring a SINGLE fish home for one meal a month.

Also, the guideline indicates that when the levels of the chemical contaminants are low, these types of individuals can be affected. Can you imagine if the levels of the chemical contaminants are high, then? What kind of damage would it bring to these specifically targeted groups of individuals?

Therefore, if I were you, I wouldn't excessively feed the fish to young lads and anyone pregnant in my family. 

"Long lasting contaminants such as PCBs, chlordane and mercury build up in your body over time. It may take months or years of regularly eating contaminated fish to build up amounts that are a health concern. Health problems that may result from the contaminants found in fish range from small changes in health that are hard to detect to birth defects and cancer. Mothers who eat highly contaminated fish for many years before becoming pregnant may have children who are slower to develop and learn." 

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion: 

Most of the people don't know about this little fact; however, PCBs and Heavy Metals build up in our bodies - they stay there. Most of what we eat comes out; however, it's a different story with these two. Therefore, the consequences of eating fish are not acute, but chronic. In other words, a person will not have immediate symptons for eating contaminated fish, but the same can suffer from drastic illnesses after a certain amount of time and regular wildly caught fish consumption.

PCBs, especially, are directly related with the production of Carcinogens. Therefore, if one consumes too many PCBs over a certain period of time, the same person has an increased chance of getting all different types of cancer later on.

"You will gain those benefits if you follow the sport fish consumption advisory carefully to: choose safer places to fish; pick safer species to eat; trim and cook your catch correctly; and follow the recommended meal frequencies. Using this advice, you will reduce your exposure to possible contaminants."

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

Key word here: practice selective harvest! Harvest only what you are going to eat (usually one fish by the guidelines), clean the fish properly and accordingly, follow the guidelines, and you will decrease your risks dramatically! The key words for not getting yourself exposed to future illnesses are moderation and expectation. 

"Pennsylvania has issued a general, statewide health advisory for recreationally caught sport fish. That advice is that you eat no more than one meal (one-half pound) per week of sport fish caught in the state’s waterways. This general advice was issued to protect against eating large amounts of fish that have not been tested or that may contain unidentified contaminants."

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

It's true that it's IMPOSSIBLE to know the composition of every fish that swims in our waters. We can only estimate by analyzing small samples of fish. Some are safer to eat than others. Some have parasites, others don't. Some have more PCBs and heavy metals in them due to their habitat and feeding location. That's just the way things are...

Therefore, for all Species that are not in the chart on page 2 of the Guidelines, the PA Boat and Commission recommends only a meal of half-pound per week, meaning 2lbs of fish per month.

"One meal is assumed to be one-half pound of fish (8 oz before cooking) for a 150-pound person. The meal advice is equally protective for larger people who eat larger meals and smaller people who eat smaller meals."

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

Follow the guidelines, and you should be fine. 32oz of fish per month for fishes that are not in the page 2 of the guideline, and 8oz of fish per month for those who are in the page 2. As far as quantities are very small and the fish is nicely cleaned (most of the fatty part gone), even the worst Catfish cannot bring much harm to the consumer.

The problem is that people tend to bring a 2lb+ Catfish home from the Schuylkill, for example, and eat it in one meal. The bigger problem is to eat that multiple times a week. Think it this way: if someone eats 5lbs of Catfish from the tidal Schuylkill River per week, the person is consuming 9x the recommended value on the Guidelines. 5lbs per week means 20 lbs per month, 39x the recommended amount. Multiply that by a couple years, and you will see the "risks" I'm talking about!

"PCBs and most other organic contaminants usually build up in a fish’s fat deposits and just underneath the skin. By removing the skin and fat before cooking, you can reduce the levels of these chemicals. Mercury, however, collects in the fish’s muscle and cannot be reduced by cleaning and cooking methods. To reduce PCBs and other organics:

• Remove all skin.
• Slice off fat belly meat along the bottom of the fish.
• Cut away any fat above the fish’s backbone.
• Cut away the V-shaped wedge of fat along the lateral line on each side of the fish.
• Bake or broil trimmed fish on a rack or grill so some of the remaining fat drips away.
• Discard any drippings. Do not eat them or use them for cooking other foods or in preparing other sauces.

You must follow these cleaning and cooking directions. The meal advice is for eating skinned and trimmed fish."

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

I like this portion of the Guideline. The Boat and Commission has a very decent picture of it, and they teach you how to clean the fish. The bad part is that the process is complicated, time-consuming, and a big portion of the fish's meat is wasted. For smaller fish (i.e. Bluegills, Black Crappies), the process is even more complicated. The good part is that it keeps you safe and healthy for more fish to come (remember: moderation is the key).

"Also remember that larger and older fish tend to collect more contaminants, and fatty fish (such as channel catfish, carp and eels) tend to collect PCBs and other organic chemicals. Therefore, eating smaller, younger fish and avoiding fatty species can help limit your exposure. Your exposure depends not only on levels in the fish, but also the amount of fish you eat. The consumption of any fish from contaminated waters is a matter of personal choice."

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

This is something that I have been telling people all around! Rather than taking a 5lb Channel Catfish or Common Carp home, take a 2lber. The reason is simple: younger fish tend to have less contaminants in their system, and even tastier meat. Therefore, next time you get that "Trophy Fish," think about this. It's better to get a legal smaller size for your own safety.

"Delaware Estuary, including the tidal portion of all PA tributaries and the Schuylkill River to the Fairmount Dam (Bucks, Philadelphia, & Delaware CO.):

White Perch, Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish, Striped Bass: 1 Meal/Month; PCB
American Eel, Carp: DO NOT EAT; PCB"

Comments, Suggestions, Conclusion:

This applies for almost everywhere around Philadelphia. After all, the tidal Pennypack and tidal Wissahickon are tributaries of the Schuylkill River, and the Schuylkill River is a tributary of the Delaware River. Therefore, take in consideration that one should only consume half a pound of the Species above!

I hope this Post was helpful for you guys - readers, especially because many people have no idea how bad the fish can be, health wise. I would advise all anglers to either purchase a Trout Stamp to harvest Trout, since they are safe, or take fish from Creeks (legally, and in moderation), since they are safer to eat.

Best of luck for all of us,

Long Days and Pleasant Nights,


Leo S.