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Safe to eat fish caught in Philly? Depends whom you ask

On a narrow strip of green dividing the Schuylkill from a waste-processing facility and the remains of a shuttered chemical plant, Edison Crayton reeled in a catfish about 18 inches long on a weekday morning.

"The water's crappy," Darryl McMillian said, but he was still willing to eat a friend's catch. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
"The water's crappy," Darryl McMillian said, but he was still willing to eat a friend's catch. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)Read more

On a narrow strip of green dividing the Schuylkill from a waste-processing facility and the remains of a shuttered chemical plant, Edison Crayton reeled in a catfish about 18 inches long on a weekday morning.

Crayton had been catching fish in Grays Ferry Crescent park for a few hours and tossing them back, but this time, he took the wriggling fish over to one of his fellow anglers, Darryl McMillian. He had heard McMillian was keeping his fish.

"The water's crappy," McMillian said as he looked at the brown depths from which the fish had come. But he was still willing to eat Crayton's catch. It went into his bucket, along with another catfish and a perch he had caught that day, all of which he planned to eat.

Avid anglers say fishing for sport on the Delaware, Schuylkill, and assorted Philadelphia creeks gives them a sense of serenity in the midst of the city. But the fish they catch are nevertheless urban specimens, which leads to the question - are they safe to eat?

Fish can contain dangerous chemicals, most notably mercury, which can damage the nervous system and organs; and PCBs, which can lead to cancer and other health problems.

But that shouldn't prompt people to swear off all fresh-caught fish, experts say. The state Fish and Boat Commission offers a complex chart advising anglers about how often they should feel safe sampling specific fish caught in certain locations.

Seafood caught in the Delaware River in Philadelphia may contain mercury, the chart says, but residents can safely eat two meals a month from the river – about a pound of fish monthly for a 150-pound person. Catfish and suckers in the Schuylkill are safe to eat once a month, despite the PCBs they contain, but the carp and American eels in that river contain such a high concentration of PCBs they should never be eaten.

Every licensed angler in Pennsylvania receives a copy of these detailed guidelines once a year from the Fish and Boat Commission. But lifelong angler Doug Lafferty, for one, scoffs at the recommendations.

"If they tell you only eat one meal a week or whatever, I know there's nothing wrong. Nothing has happened to me yet. If I grow another ear, I'll know something's wrong," he says.

He eats the fish he catches in the Schuylkill and in Wissahickon Creek, and he advises customers at Bob's Bait & Tackle in East Falls, where he has worked for nearly 20 years, to do the same.

Lafferty says the economic crisis, coupled with improved water quality over the last several decades, has made sport-caught fish a more popular dinner offering.

"With people out of work now, a lot of people want to go get fish so they can eat them," he says. "They're eating more. I hear them."

Leo Sheng, a Temple University mathematics and physics student who says he has fished in almost every body of water in a 10-mile radius and who writes a blog, "Extreme Philly Fishing," agrees many anglers disregard the guidelines.

"A lot of people eat it more than once a month, that's for sure," he says. "I see that all the time." He says he occasionally catches creek fish such as sunfish and trout for his family and friends to eat but avoids bottom feeders and all fish from the city's rivers.

Overconsumption of sport-caught fish is worrisome to public health experts. "If it says three meals and you eat four, you're not going to automatically have health issues, but you could," cautions Tom Barron, a manager of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's water quality arm.

Kandiah Sivarajah, a toxicologist for the state Department of Health who helps set the standards for safe consumption that the state distributes, warns that fishermen are at greater risk than consumers of store-bought fish. The offerings at the fish counter might contain chemicals, he says, but because those fish are caught in many locations, diners take in only small amounts of several different toxins. Eating the same toxin frequently, as an angler who repeatedly fishes in the same stream might do, is more likely to lead to harm.

But lately, state officials spend more time fretting about people who eat less fish than the guidelines permit than those who eat more. The DEP is in the final year of a three-year study of anglers' awareness of the fish consumption guidelines, and so far, Barron says, the agency has learned that more fishermen seem to swear off eating their catches out of fear of toxins than those who eat more than they should.

"It opened my eyes," Barron says. "Are they just jumping to the conclusion that it's unsafe to eat fish?"

For many, the answer seems to be yes.

"I see some gross things in the water. You see condoms floating on top of the water. It just turns me off," says Vera Adams, who fishes in the Schuylkill almost every day, weather permitting. And she has a second reason for not eating her catches: She says she would be too squeamish to cut a fish's head off.

Garrett Sahm, 9, agrees the water looks unsuitable for safe seafood. "I sometimes see trash floating right by. It's nasty stuff," he says. "I don't really like eating it from the river because I don't want to get parasites and stuff." He and his brother, 13-year-old Ti'yan Williams, fish with their father about twice a week during the summer, but Williams says he has never eaten their catches.

Hearing reports like these, the DEP plans to mount a campaign to articulate more clearly to anglers that they can safely chow down on some of their haul.

"We were realizing that part of our message was not getting out there as well as we'd like," Barron says. "It's important to continue to eat fish. It has significant health benefits."

But for Sheng, those health benefits might best be found at the grocery store. "Eating fish in Philadelphia is actually pretty dangerous," says the urban fishing blogger. "I would advise people to go to the market and buy their fish to eat."