Fishermen disregard New Bedford Harbor’s lingering toxic past
Officials keep dredging up PCBs and posting signs at New Bedford Harbor—but studies suggest anglers are eating too much of their contaminated catch.
NEW BEDFORD, Mass.—It was about 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, and Arthur Burton was standing on a pier by Fort Tabor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with a fishing pole.
He fishes all over the area, from Rhode Island to Cape Cod, but today he decided to cast his line into waters that flow in and out of the New Bedford Harbor.
Burton is looking for stripers, or striped bass, blues, also known as bluefish, and tautog. If it's the right size, the fish will come home with him. If they are too small, back in the water they go. But one thing that isn't weighing into his decision: pollutants in the fish.
"For the most part, they are migrant. They go in and go out. They don't live in the harbor," Burton told EHN.
But despite Burton's assertions, the fish that swim in the waters of New Bedford Harbor are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are persistent organic pollutants. The levels, depending on the fish, are not healthy to consume.
Burton isn't alone. Despite an approximate 35-year clean-up of the harbor, there are still harmful levels of toxics in the fish. The Environmental Protection Agency and local city officials have put up signs and have worked to spread the word about contaminated fish, but studies suggest the local anglers are still eating far too many toxic fish.
PCBs were used in electrical equipment and as industrial solvents. The chemical family was banned in the 1970s amid concern that PCBs bioaccumulated in wildlife and people. The chemicals are fat soluble and prefer to bind to fish tissue over the sediment. Fish can eat PCBs by eating smaller fish or life growing in the sediment, or they might absorb the PCBs through their skin, Superfund expert David Carpenter, director of University at Albany's Institute for Health and the Environment, told EHN.
When people eat contaminated fish, the PCBs will stay in the fatty tissue in different organs, which leads to a multitude of health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
PCB exposure can cause severe acne or skin lesions, decreases in birth weights and gestational age, lower IQs and difficulty focusing, liver problems, as well as other problems affecting the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune, neurological and musculoskeletal systems. PCBs are also considered carcinogens, according to the CDC.
The effects are cumulative, but there are not acute symptoms, which means damage from PCB exposure isn't obvious. That makes it more difficult for people to understand why they shouldn't eat fish contaminated with PCBs, Carpenter said.
New Bedford Harbor, located between New Bedford and Fairhaven, Massachusetts, leads out into the waters of Buzzard Bay and then into the Atlantic Ocean. And while the picturesque waters make it look like a quaint beach town, the New Bedford Harbor is one of the EPA's Superfund sites, due to levels of PCBs found in the water.
The EPA is nearly finished with its hydraulic dredging of the harbor — it's slated to finish in 2020 — which is being done to address the PCBs. The city has worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to turn the area into a place for people to walk, swim and fish. And while recreational fishing is allowed, the EPA has warned against eating fish from the waters.
But the message is not getting across.
The harbor’s contamination
Fish from Closure Area 2 in New Bedford Harbor can be eaten once a month, depending on species. (Credit: Heather Mongilio/EHN)
New Bedford was a whaling town, and they have an active whaling museum to memorialize their history. But it also has an industrial past, and with the industries came chemicals.
The biggest source of PCBs came from Aerovox, a company that made electrical components from the 1940s to 1978, according to the EPA's site for New Bedford Harbor. It was located by the Acushnet River, which leads into the harbor.
The EPA settled two lawsuits with Aerovox Corp., now known as AVX Corp., as well as four other companies — Monsanto Co. and Cornell-Dubilier Electronics among them — which have provided funding for some of the 35-year cleanup, Kelsey Dumville, community involvement coordinator with the EPA, told EHN. The companies had all contributed to the leakage of PCBs into the water.
The second suit, against AVX Corp. and settled in 2010, provided $366 million for the cleanup effort, allowing the EPA to increase the hydraulic dredging, Dumville said.
Signs warning anglers about contaminated fish in Closure Area 1 are printed in multiple languages. (Credit: Heather Mongilio/EHN)
The harbor is divided into three closure areas, with the first having the most contamination. Closure Area 1 is in the main part of the harbor before the hurricane barrier. The EPA has signs posted around entrances to the area indicating that people are not supposed to eat the fish.
After the hurricane barrier is Closure Area 2. Fishermen are limited to eating black sea bass caught in the area once a month, but the EPA warns against eating any fish considered bottom eaters, like scup or tautog, fish that fishermen in the area often catch.
Most fish caught in the third closure area can be eaten, according to EPA regulations, with the exception of lobster and scup. Tautog and black sea bass should be eaten no more than once a month.
Although some of the fish, like stripers, may be migratory, they aren't free of PCB exposure, Carpenter said.
Fish that live in the water will be more contaminated than migratory fish, but because the fish are swimming in contaminated waters they will still get PCBs into their system, he said.
It seems many people avoid fishing in the part of the harbor closest to the old factories, but, on a sunny Friday in June, many people cast their lines past New Bedford's hurricane barrier, which is considered Closure Area 2.
The EPA's fishing regulations are posted near Closure Area 1, and there are other signs around the area to indicate that people should not eat the fish. But the signs are not as obvious in parts of Closure Area 2 where other fishermen are catching fish, including by a boat ramp where Joe Moniz, a New Bedford resident, was fishing with his daughter. Neither of them eat the fish they catch.
"But driving in here right now, I don't see any signs that say don't eat the fish. I don't know if the fish are good," he said.
Dumville said there are signs throughout the closure areas written in three languages — English, Portuguese and Spanish — due to the city's large immigrant population. There are approximately 10,000 documented and 10,000 undocumented immigrants there, she said.
And because there is a large Guatemalan population, which speaks K'iche, a language that is spoken but not written, the EPA is using more picture signs, including one on the gate that leads to the Harbor Walk, she said.
The EPA has also worked with the city to have volunteers go down to the fishing areas and talk with fishermen, Dumville said. They are sent out with checklists to see if they see fishermen, and when they do, they ask them questions about their fishing and consumption habits.
Volunteers will also go to community events to try and speak with people about the fishing regulations, Michele Paul, director of Resilience and the Environmental Stewardship for the city of New Bedford told EHN.
"There are a lot of people who still do recreational fishing, catch and release, but we really try to get the word out, especially to those who might be trying to take the fish home to their families to feed them, we want to get the word out to them that it's not safe. Even though they might not feel sick the next day, the fish are not ready. The harbor cleanup is going to take years to realize the full effects of the cleanup," Paul said.
Despite these efforts, people are still eating the fish in numbers exceeding recommendations.
“If it’s a good size and it’s legal, I’ll keep them”
New Bedford resident Joe Fortojo fishes in Closure Area 2. (Credit: Heather Mongilio/EHN)
In 2016, the EPA released a memo about their first year of outreach efforts with fishermen, reporting that during 70 visits to Closure Areas 1 and 2, they found approximately 230 people fishing. Of the 73 that answered whether they ate the fish they caught, 62 said yes. The majority of the fishermen also said that they ate the fish weekly, according to the memo.
In addition, a recent study out of Boston University found similar results to the EPA — 67 percent of the fishermen lead researcher Komal Basra talked to in 2015 ate or shared the fish they caught, according to the study.
"The most interesting finding was that when we asked people about what their motivation for fishing was, everyone reported that they were really out there for recreational reasons," Basra told EHN.
Bill Duarte, a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, resident who was fishing behind a closed restaurant in area 2, said he eats what he catches, if they are big enough. He eats scup, which is on the EPA's do not eat list, but he said he's not worried about contamination.
"If it's a good size and it's legal, I'll keep them," he told EHN.
The only time he won't eat the fish is after a heavy rainstorm, which brings bacteria into the water. But the beaches usually shut down when that happens, he said.
There was also an element of cultural identity tied to fishing, Basra said. "Some of them responded when asked why they fished, they said, 'You know, I'm Portuguese. I love fishing,'" Basra said.
Consumption of the fish was a byproduct, meaning people weren't usually fishing as a way to put food on their families' tables.
But Basra's study had limitations. She only talked to people who spoke English, and there are a fair number of people around the harbor whose primary language is not English.
It's been three years since Basra collected her data and the EPA started their community outreach. Fishing is still popular along the harbor and many are still eating the fish. Starting around 4 p.m. Friday people started setting up their poles —some at the boat ramps, others behind closed restaurants.
David Gaipo, a New Bedford resident, had come to the waters in Closure Area 2 because a friend had recently caught a large fish. He had been previously fishing by the Fairhaven Bridge, which is in Closure Area 1.
While Gaipo knew about the contamination and won't eat the fish because of it, he wasn't above joking about the toxics in the water and the other unhealthy items people eat.
"I'd rather eat this stuff than McDonalds," he told EHN.
Going forward in New Bedford
Joe Moniz fishes in Closure Area 2. (Credit: Heather Mongilio/EHN)
Ask the residents in New Bedford, and they'll say the waters are noticeably cleaner than before. Anntonio Moniz, who has lived in New Bedford since 1969, said that he doesn't fish, but the water is cleaner.
"I mean I'm not fishing or anything. But that's what I hear people say. That's what the fishermen tell me," he said.
And the water is cleaner, even if it isn't completely clean. And the city of New Bedford is beginning to capitalize on their harbor, with the Cove Walk, which is on the hurricane barrier, and the Harbor Walk. They are also working on building a River Walk, which will go through the industrial sites, Paul said.
"[The harbor is] a huge part of who we are historically, and culturally and economically," she said.