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Food, Nature, Spaces, Trash

Fishing in the Anacostia: Catfish, Carp and Cancer

Today’s post is written by our guest blogger, Juliet. 

The Anacostia River. Though it is quite literally in the backyard of our nation’s capital and provides a natural oasis in our highly developed landscape, it has suffered greatly from environmental degradation.

Visual created by Communication Visual,

The Anacostia is home to many species of fish and wildlife. However, it is not only the wildlife, but the nearly 860,000 people who live throughout the watershed that may suffer from the pollution and other urban runoff that contaminate these waters.  The presence of persistent toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), in the Anacostia continue to put our community at risk for disease. Fish accumulate these and other chemicals which, in turn, present a serious health risk to human consumers including cancer, liver disease and developmental effects, as well as effects on the immune and endocrine systems. And because chemicals affect development, children and adolescence as well as women of childbearing age are most at risk. Other vulnerable populations such as the elderly are directly in harm’s way as well.

To address this problem, a group of local, District, and Federal partners – including Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Anacostia Riverkeeper, District Government, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  – conducted a yearlong effort to evaluate the extent to which people are catching, sharing and eating fish from the Anacostia River. The research included field interviews and focus groups with anglers as well as a representative survey of the broader community’s experience.

The findings show poor and inconsistent knowledge about the health risks involved in consuming Anacostia River fish:

  • Though anglers may fish the Anacostia quite frequently – 63% of those surveyed indicated they do so at least once a week in warm weather – there is insufficient knowledge of the health risks of consuming their catch.
  • Individuals surveyed were also under the mistaken impression that the health of a fish can be assessed only by looking at it. However, that is not the case – toxins are absorbed well beyond what can be seen by the eye.
  • Among community residents, 44% of those surveyed said they “had never heard that eating fish out of the Anacostia could make you sick.”
  • Though 77% of those surveyed had eaten fish in the last month outside of a restaurant, and 28% have been given locally-caught fish, none of these individuals were aware of which local waters their food came from.

The research also indicated wide-spread sharing of fish from the Anacostia. Three-quarters of anglers surveyed reported eating and sharing some or all of their catch. Even by conservative estimates, as many as 17,000 residents may be consuming fish caught from the Anacostia. Nearly half (46%) of anglers interviewed in the riverbank survey indicated that they are sharing their catch beyond their immediate families. There is also evidence of sharing among high-risk groups: 12% of anglers surveyed indicated that children are eating their catch and 11% are sharing with wives or girlfriends (women of childbearing age).

Perhaps most alarming are the drivers behind the sharing and consumption of fish. The research made clear that the causes behind this behavior are extremely complex. Food security—the availability, accessibility and affordability of food— is playing no small part. Anglers who were surveyed indicated, for instance, that they are often approached by people—who would otherwise go hungry—asking for fish. So the problem then becomes: how can you tell someone who is starving today not to eat fish that may cause cancer in 20 years? There is no simple solution.

The good news is that this report is already generating a great deal of dialog. Ideas to combat the problem are already being put forth such as better messaging to affected populations, aquaponics (a farming technique that grows plants and fish in a recirculating environment), Community Supported Agriculture, more urban gardens and increasing the numbers of farmers markets. With the right organizations coming to the table, and increased awareness of the problem, a solution is certainly within reach.

For more information or to download the complete report, visit
Want to read more posts by Juliet?  You can find her other guest blog post here:



  1. Pingback: Water, Wetlands, and Washington DC | Redefining Eco - March 21, 2013

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