Toxic legacy: Fish, fish everywhere, but not a bite to eat

NEW BEDFORD — The seagulls behind Northern Wind’s Hassey Street facility had better luck than Bobby Ramsey Wednesday afternoon. Tucked between the fish houses north of the hurricane barrier, he sat wearing cut off jeans and a camouflage hat, holding his fishing pole and hoping a striper would take the bait.

This is how Ramsey says he makes his living, earning up to $150 per day by selling the fish he catches in the harbor to friends and family, he said. No one has ever bothered him here except the seagulls, which he called annoying because they can take the smaller fish he has to throw back in.

“The stripers I got today, they weren’t long enough to keep,” he said.

Fishing in the New Bedford Harbor is something Ramsey said he knows he’s not supposed to do. Though New Bedford is the number one fishing port in the country, fishing in the harbor itself was banned by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in 1979 because the fish can contain dangerous amounts of the cancer-causing chemicals that litter the harbor floor. Because eating the fish is dangerous, “taking” them is not allowed by state regulations.

But, Ramsey explains, “I got to eat. That’s what I care about.”

The Environmental Protection Agency states in public documents that its harbor cleanup will not be sufficient to safely allow fishing here. Simultaneously, agency officials recognize that as long as the restrictions are in place, people will continue to ignore them.

This presents a unique challenge to federal, state and city parties alike who seek to protect human health in a city that struggles with unemployment and homelessness. It’s also the ire of environmental activists who say residents have a right to a fishable harbor that they may never receive.


The New Bedford Harbor is lined with cancer-causing toxins known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that were released into the harbor between 1938 and 1973 by factories such as the electrical component manufacturer Aerovox.

Though air and skin exposure to the chemicals is dangerous, humans are most at risk of becoming sick from PCB exposure by eating the contaminated fish that swim among the toxins.

“It’s pretty well established that eating PCB-contaminated fish increases the risk of health problems associated with PCBs,” said Stephen Lester, who is the science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Baltimore, Md., and has studied New Bedford’s environmental problems.

PCBs typically bond to organic material, so when a fish comes in contact with the chemical it enters into their bodies through the gills and mouths and settles in their fat. The PCBs are transferred from organism to organism as each is eaten, moving up the food chain from plankton to shellfish to fish and finally to the people who consume them.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, seafood is safe to eat if it contains less than 2 parts per million of PCBs. But because of New Bedford’s rich maritime history and “local patterns of seafood consumption,” the EPA ruled in 1998 that fish caught in the harbor should reach a more stringent safety standard of 0.02 parts per million PCBs before being safe for consumption. That level will not be reached by the EPA’s cleanup of the harbor, and the fishing limitations are expected to stay in place indefinitely.

“Essentially, if a fish is in the harbor for any period of time, it will consume a fair amount of PCBs,” Lester said, adding that while all people are at risk from PCBs, that risk is higher for children younger than 12 and pregnant women.

Fish containing PCBs “may not look different” from regular fish, and there is no way to tell which ones are contaminated. That’s why sites contaminated with PCBs typically have fishing bans, Lester said.

New Bedford’s fishing restriction was last updated by the EPA in 2010 and bans the eating of any fish or shellfish caught inside of the hurricane barrier. Additionally, bottom-feeding fish like flounder, scup and eel are dangerous to eat if they are caught between the end of Sconticut Neck in Fairhaven and Ricketson’s Point in Dartmouth. It is recommended that people eat no more than one meal per month of black sea bass or shellfish caught in that area.

The fishing ban remains in place for lobsters and scup caught as far out as Mishaum Point off Dartmouth to the end of West Island in Fairhaven, as does the recommendation to limit black sea bass consumption to one meal per month.

These bans are the result of annual testing conducted by the EPA and the state Department of Public Health, which test for contamination in each species by catching, filleting and examining the stomach contents of specimens.


At sunrise on Thursday morning as the sky turned from pink to blue, a Latino immigrant sat out on a dike just south of Davey’s Locker, fishing for tautog. Speaking in Spanish, the man, who would not give his name, said he did not know anything about the health risks of fishing in that area. Though tautog are ground feeders and should not be eaten if they are caught anywhere north of Ricketson’s Point according to the ban, the man said he frequently catches five or six per day there and either serves them to his family or sells them for $3.50 per pound to neighbors.

“I take as many as I can get,” he said.

EPA Community Outreach Coordinator Kelsey O’Neil said the EPA distributes pamphlets in English, Spanish and Portuguese about the fishing ban with every shellfish license taken out in the city. The agency also distributes the pamphlets to public places around Fairhaven and New Bedford, but a survey by The Standard-Times last week could not find any at Town Hall, City Hall or the New Bedford and Fairhaven Libraries.

A pamphlet found in a kiosk at the School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford was from March 2006, and contained outdated information that did not include the monthly restrictions on black sea bass and shellfish caught outside the hurricane barrier.

Bulletin boards with small roofs called “kiosks” are present at Fort Taber and other areas around the harbor with fishing maps and regulations only in English.

O’Neil said the agency is trying its best to “get our information out there,” and is planning to “reevaluate our outreach efforts as we move along with the harbor dredging.”

The agency also is supposed to maintain signs along the harbor banks telling people not to fish. At Riverside Park, there are plaques in English, Spanish and Portuguese posted every 10 feet or so. Elsewhere, the signage is sparse.

On Thursday morning Edwin Rivera, president of Hands Across the River Coalition, took a tour of the harbor side, checking the “No Fishing” warning signs.

At Popes Island he pulled back a group of overgrown vines and bushes to reveal the island’s only sign in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

“Unless you know it’s here, you can’t see it,” he said.

At Fort Phoenix in Fairhaven he met a group of Asian men fishing who spoke little English but said they knew nothing about the restrictions.

“If you don’t know those three languages, or you don’t read, the EPA’s signs won’t help you,” Rivera said.

The EPA used to put out signs with a big red circle with an ‘X’ through it over a picture of a fish and a hook, which Rivera prefers. Those signs have mostly disappeared. Two remain at the Gifford Street Boat ramp hanging from a railing. The signs face the harbor; their message is invisible from the shore.

“The only things that can see these signs are the fish themselves,” Rivera complained.

Near the signs, Rivera found an orange mesh bag used to carry quahogs with a city shellfishing permit attached. He said it was evidence that the signs aren’t working.


On Wednesday, a local fisherman who called himself Tony was using fish eggs as bait behind Northern Wind.

Tony, who did not provide a last name for fear of getting in trouble, said he didn’t worry about the risks of eating his catch because the fish swim in and out of the harbor.

“I’ve seen a lot of people eat what they catch down here and I haven’t seen one of them dead yet,” he said. “What’s the difference anyway if you catch them here or right after the dike?” More than a dozen people interviewed for this article who fish in the harbor and eat or sell their catch told The Standard-Times they do it because they are poor, hungry or both.

That’s something Rivera said has been true of the harbor fishermen he has met in his two decades of environmental advocacy.

“Times are tough and people are going to use the harbor as a supermarket,” he said.

Standing outside the Salvation Army last week, Veronica Velez, who struggles with homelessness, said she has fished in the harbor and eaten her catch.

“It’s hard when you don’t have anything to eat,” said Velez. “There are nights when you’re not going to get anything unless you fish. If the choice is starving now or maybe getting cancer down the road, you do what you have to do.”

Leonard Melancon, 40, said he started fishing in the harbor when he became unemployed after being injured on a commercial fishing boat.

Some people in his situation fish in the harbor instead of outside of it in order to avoid paying for a fishing license, he said. Doing so helps them skirt fines they could receive if they fish illegally without a state license outside the hurricane barrier. There, they say, game wardens come and check whether they have licenses, but inside the barrier they are rarely bothered.

Melancon said he often sells the stripers he catches.

He said he knows what he does is wrong, saying he never thought he’d be doing it before he became unemployed.

“But I have kids to feed,” he said.

Port Security Sergeant Jill Simmons said she can only recall “one or two” arrests being made for people selling their catch, something that’s “absolutely illegal.”

Arrests are only made “if you happen to see them.”

“No one’s going to tell you they buy polluted fish,” she said.

Mayor Jon Mitchell would not comment on the issue, instead referring questions to Port Director Jeffrey Steib.

Steib said the Harbor Development Commission is “very concerned” with people selling their catch to their friends and family.

“Everybody should know not to buy fish from anyone unless you trust them and know for sure where the fish are coming from,” he said. “If you are seeing it sold on the street, don’t buy it.”

Enforcement of the fishing law is also spotty, in part due to the number of agencies involved in the harbor.

“I don’t think anyone can tell you definitively what the rules are for fishing on the harbor,” Simmons said. “It’s difficult to tell who is doing what.”

She said she has fined people for trespassing on private property in order to fish, but has not ever done anything about people fishing.

“People fish and we don’t really care,” she said. “If people take it home to eat, I mean, they’re taking their own chance.”

The state Environmental Police, which enforces state fishing regulations made by the Department of Marine Fisheries, does not enforce the fishing ban, which was issued by the Department of Public Health.

Environmental Police Spokesman Reginald Zimmerman said the agency does check licences of fishermen “if we are out (on the Harbor) and see people fishing” and will fine people for fishing without a license.

The EPA does not enforce the fishing restrictions at all, instead focusing its efforts on outreach.

“We can only advise fishing there is not a good idea,” he said, calling the restriction “more of a guideline than a law.”


Director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development Patrick Sullivan said the city does make resources available to the homeless and hungry. Each year, the city distributes a “street sheet” outlining “all the services that are available in the community to folks who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.”

He said he was unaware that people fish in the harbor or eat their catch from there.

Bruce Morell, executive director of People Acting in Community Endeavors (PACE), said he has heard people claim they eat fish from the harbor, but is “skeptical” that it is true.

“There are enough resources in this city, I can’t believe someone would fish in polluted waters because they need to eat,” he said, citing outreach programs like Mercy Meals & More and Food for Friends.

Out of the 19 food assistance agencies in the city, 11 provide food without requiring any proof of income or identification. Many serve meals at different times in the city. A free breakfast is available from one of these organizations every day, and free lunch is available every day except Saturday.

Free dinner is harder to come by. Supper is served by either the Salvation Army or Sister Rose every Sunday and Wednesday, and every third Thursday.

The eight other agencies providing food require food stamps, identification or Social Security numbers of those hoping to take advantage of them. Rivera said this shuts out many of the city’s poor who are undocumented immigrants.

“That’s why they’re fishing,” he said. “They’re fishing for their dinner.”

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