- After decades of industrial pollution, New Jersey’s Passaic River is thought to be one of the most contaminated waterways in the U.S.
- The New Jersey Department of Health warns residents not to eat any seafood harvested from the river, as it may lead to health problems like cancer, liver damage, birth defects and reproductive issues
- Some of the companies being held liable for the pollution have created a “fish exchange” program so that residents can turn in their toxic catch for frozen fish from Costco
For decades, more than 100 companies allegedly dumped hazardous waste, including byproducts from the manufacture of Agent Orange, into New Jersey’s Passaic River. Today it is thought to be one of the most contaminated waterways in the U.S.
The New Jersey Department of Health and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection warn residents not to eat any seafood harvested from the river, as it may lead to health problems like cancer, liver damage, birth defects and reproductive issues.1
Yet, some residents rely on fish from the river, eating them regularly despite their accumulated toxins. About half of the companies being held liable for the pollution have now created a so-called “fish exchange” program so that residents can turn in their toxic catch for frozen fish from Costco.
Polluters Attempt to Pacify Residents With Frozen Fish
New Jersey residents may be understandably upset that they can no longer consume fish from the Passaic River.
And so, perhaps in an effort to curb impending litigation, 54 of the companies that may be liable for polluting the river have formed “The Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group,” and paid Rutgers University more than $1 million to create a fish exchange program.2
The university is raising farm-raised tilapia in a greenhouse. Residents can then bring in their toxic catches from the Passaic (on Saturdays between June and October) and exchange them, pound for pound, for the farm-raised fish.
None of the tilapia were of harvest size at the start of the program, however, so for 2015 anyone who brought in fish received bags of frozen tilapia purchased from Costco. The program has not had a big turnout, exchanging only 170 fish from June 2015 to January 2016.
Then there’s the issue of what to do with them. Right now, the collected fish are sitting in a freezer while it’s debated how to properly dispose of them. Incinerating them would release the toxins into the air; sending them to a landfill may ultimately add contaminants to soil and groundwater.
Fish Exchange Called a Distraction Tactic
The fish exchange has been called a distraction tactic: a way for the polluting companies to skirt responsibility and avoid cleaning up the river. Walter Mugdan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told WNYC:
“It’s not something that we’ve proposed nor is it something that we endorsed … It’s certainly no substitute for cleaning up the river and getting the fish to be cleaned in the first place.”
WNYC reported that the EPA has proposed a $1.7-billion cleanup of the river, which would involve removing 2 feet of toxic sediment from the river bottom and replacing it with clean rocks. Even with the best remediation, it’s likely to be decades (or more) before fish from the river is safe to eat again.
Polluted Fish Is More the Norm Than the Exception
Although the Passaic River contamination is an extreme case, it exemplifies what has happened to many natural fish sources worldwide. Pollution has rendered many sources of seafood unsafe to eat.
A major problem is the combustion in power plants of coal containing mercury. Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants and other sources moves through the air and is deposited in water and finds its way into fish, accumulating especially in fish that are higher up the food chain.
Fish like tuna, marlin, shark, barracuda, and swordfish have some of the highest levels of contamination. Further, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study, mercury contamination was detected in EVERY fish sampled in nearly 300 streams across the U.S.
More than one-quarter of these fish contained mercury at levels exceeding the EPA criterion for the protection of human health. It’s not only mercury that’s a problem, however.
Over the course of the last century, thousands of dangerous chemical substances, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins, and pesticides, have been poured into the oceans and other waterways.
PCBs are indicative of the environmental devastation that can occur when chemicals are used irresponsibly, even decades after they’ve been banned from the market.
Most developed nations stopped using PCBs in the 1980s, but researchers that analyzed blubber samples taken as late as 2012 still found extensive contamination.
Data from more than 1,000 animals showed high concentrations of PCBs in the blubber of killer whales, bottlenose dolphins and striped dolphins — levels that may exceed the threshold for causing health damage.3 According to the study, which was published in Scientific Reports:4
“Despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.”
Farmed Salmon Spreading Salmon-Killing Virus in the Pacific Northwest
The fact that companies responsible for polluting the Passaic River would consider handing out farmed fish as a viable solution is disheartening, considering farmed fish itself is responsible for environmental pollution of its own. It’s also putting wild salmon at risk.
Fish farms breed pathogens that can spread like wildfire and contaminate any wild fish swimming past. Wild salmon that died before spawning have tested positive for a number of salmon viruses, including the highly lethal infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus, also known as salmon influenza.
First detected in Norway in 1984, infection spread to other countries via egg imports. In Chile, ISA virus wiped out 70 percent of the country’s salmon industry, at a cost of $2 billion. But Chile has no native salmon to decimate. British Columbia does.
And contrary to Chile, the wild salmon of British Columbia are absolutely critical to the ecosystem and residents of the area. The locals don’t just make money off these fish; it’s a main staple of their diet.
Salmon May Be Widely Contaminated With ISA Virus
According to biologist Alexandra Morton, at least 11 species of fish in the Fraser River have been found to be infected with European-strain ISA virus.
Yet the Canadian food inspection agency has aggressively refuted the findings, and even attacked the credibility of two of the most preeminent experts on ISA testing, who testified that positive results were found to the Cohen Commission.
In fact, everyone who has spoken up about these salmon viruses, which can be traced back to salmon farms, has been shut down in some way or another.
Morton tested farmed salmon purchased in various stores and sushi restaurants around British Columbia, and samples tested positive for at least three different salmon viruses, including:
- Infectious salmon anemia virus (ISA)
- Salmon alphaviruses
- Piscine reovirus, which gives salmon a heart attack and prevents them from swimming upriver
Worse still, Morton and colleagues have also found traces of ISA virus in wild salmon.5
The problem with this, aside from the unknown effects on human health from eating salmon with lethal fish viruses, is that viruses are preserved by cold, and fish are always kept frozen for freshness.
Then, when you wash the fish, the viruses get flushed down the drain and depending on your sewer system, could be introduced into local watersheds. The environmental impact of this viral contamination is unknown, but it’s unlikely to be completely harmless.
“This is why it must become public,” Morton says. She insists that consumers, stores and trading partners must become aware of this problem and be the ones to insist on proper testing and remedial action. It’s not just about protecting certain species of fish, it’s about the health of the ecosystem as a whole; it’s about human health and food safety as well. For more details, check out the documentary Salmon Confidential.
Farmed Fish Are Contaminated, Too
The other irony to polluters handing out farmed fish in exchange for polluted wild fish? Farmed fish are contaminated too. In a global assessment of farmed salmon published in the journal Science, 13 persistent organic pollutants were found.6 Some of the most dangerous are PCBs, which are strongly associated with cancer, reproductive and other health problems. PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were found to be eight times higher than in wild salmon.
Those contamination levels are deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but not by the EPA. Researchers postulated that if EPA guidelines were applied to the farmed salmon they tested, recommendations would be to restrict salmon consumption to no more than once per month.
Certain types of farmed fish, including farmed catfish imported from China and farmed shrimp from China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are on the FDA watch list for illegal drug residues, including antibiotics and anti-fungal compounds.7
What Are the Best Fish to Eat?
Among the safest in terms of contamination, and the highest in healthy omega-3 fat, is wild-caught Alaskan and sockeye salmon. Neither is allowed to be farmed, so therefore they are always wild-caught.
The risk of sockeye accumulating high amounts of mercury and other toxins is reduced because of its short life cycle, which is only about three years. Additionally, bioaccumulation of toxins is also reduced by the fact that it doesn’t feed on other, already contaminated, fish.
The two designations you want to look for on the label are “Alaskan salmon” (or wild Alaskan salmon) and “Sockeye salmon.” Canned salmon labeled “Alaskan salmon” is also a good choice and offers a less expensive alternative to salmon fillets.
A general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated, so other safer choices include smaller fish like sardines, anchovies, and herring. Sardines, in particular, are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, with one serving containing more than 50 percent of your recommended daily value.8
They also contain a wealth of other nutrients, from vitamin B12 and selenium to protein, calcium, and choline, making them one of the best dietary sources of animal-based omega-3s. If you enjoy catching your own fish, you’ll want to pay attention to local fish advisories and avoid eating fish from contaminated waters. The EPA maintains a searchable map to find fish advisories where you live.9
Focus on Finding Sustainable Seafood
From a sustainability perspective, you’ll want to avoid Atlantic sardines that come from the Mediterranean in favor of Pacific sardines. According to the Seafood Watch program:10
“As a result of ineffective management and overfishing, consumers should ‘Avoid’ Atlantic sardines from the Mediterranean. Instead, choose the relatively abundant and well-managed Pacific sardines from U.S. waters — a Seafood Watch ‘Best Choice.'”
Finally, no matter what type of fish you’re considering, look for varieties that have received the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. This certification assures that every component of the manufacturing process — from how the raw materials are harvested to how the product is manufactured — has been scrutinized by MSC and has been independently audited to ensure it meets sustainable standards.
All of my krill products, for example, are MSC certified, allowing you to track where the krill oil came from in the Antarctic Ocean, as each batch of krill is carefully monitored all the way through, from catch to sale. Seafood Watch can also guide you in the direction of more sustainable seafood choices.
They have a searchable database to find more sustainable seafood options, and they even offer a Sustainable Seafood app for your smartphone. Other labels that signify more sustainable products include:
- Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed 3rd Party certification
- Fishwise: The Fishwise label identifies how the fish was caught, where it came from, and whether the fish is sustainable (or environmentally threatened).
- Seafood Safe: The Seafood Safe label involves independent testing of fish for contaminants, including mercury and PCBs, and recommendations for consumption based upon the findings.