For the very first time, D.C. officials are warning that one of the region’s staple fish is unsafe to eat.
Last week, the D.C. The Department of Energy & Environment released a fish consumption advisory saying that local rockfish, also known as striped bass or striper, contained potentially dangerous levels of an industrial toxin called polychlorinated biphenyl. The lingering chemical was used decades ago in the manufacturing of electrical equipment, floor finish, motor oil, and more. Animals exposed to the toxin have developed cancer as well as a range of problems to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.
Carp and eel also made the do-not-eat list, while several other species of fish have been upgraded to safer levels. But the warning against rockfish, which can be found on many local menus, sent the most shockwaves across the local seafood industry.
Of course, D.C. has no commercial fisheries, so the warnings only apply to recreational anglers. Environmental agencies in Virginia and Maryland say rockfish fillet caught in their states’ waters are still safe to eat. But given that rockfish are migratory fish that aren’t confined to District waters, should consumers be concerned?
The last time that DOES issued a fish advisory was 1994, although it has done chemical testing sporadically over the years. The agency first found high PCB levels in rockfish in 2013. At the time, the department only tested a single rockfish.
“When they got the first results back and these numbers were so high, there were some folks in the room that were like, ‘Wait a minute. Surely this can’t be right. These numbers are way too high,’” says DOEE spokesperson Julia Christian.
DOEE decided to collect more samples. In April and May of 2015, the agency caught six more rockfish and found equally high levels of the toxin. The samples were relatively young, small fish from popular recreational areas near the upper Potomac River.
While six fish might not seem like much of a sample size, D.C. Water Quality Division Associate Director Collin Burell says it was enough for DOEE to warn against eating rockfish. “From a statistical standpoint, that is an adequate number,” he says.
Meanwhile, the D.C. report finds that other fish caught here are now safer to eat. In fact, the contaminant levels have gone down for some resident fish that spawn and live in D.C. waters. For example, it’s now considered safe for adults to eat up to three servings per month of D.C.-caught blue catfish, which was previously on the do-not-eat list.
These findings seem to imply that D.C. waters aren’t necessarily the source of the contaminant.
“The fish are getting polluted somewhere, and at this point, it doesn’t look like that’s happening here,” says Christian. “They’re coming here, obviously, and so when you catch them here, you are catching polluted fish.”
No one can say exactly where the PCB pollution originates from or why the levels in rockfish spiked. Burrell says the chemical could have been unearthed from river sediment or runoff.
District officials seem hesitant to comment on what their results mean for other jurisdictions. “We make no assumptions about what occurs outside of the District,” says Burell. “We didn’t approach it from the standpoint of commercial fishing.”
But the fact remains that rockfish migrate all along the East Coast, and fish found in D.C. waters are from the same population that can be found in the Chesapeake Bay and other portions of the Potomac.