Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were first discovered in Hudson River fish in 1975.  General Electric had used the chemical mixtures in manufacturing capacitors at two upstate factories, and discharged approximately 1.1 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson from 1947-1977.


Contamination of the Hudson by these persistent, possibly carcinogenic compounds created the largest superfund site in the nation.  To clean up the PCBs, dredging of a 40-mile stretch of the Hudson River between the Fort Edward and Troy dams began in 2009.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) banned commercial and recreational fishing on the upper Hudson River in 1976, and banned commercial fishing from the lower Hudson at the same time.  While some of the bans have been lifted, the commercial fishery on the Hudson is a thing of the past.

Today, despite DEC recommendations that fish from a significant portion of the river should not be eaten, some people simply do not know about the potential risks from PCB contamination, says Regina Keenan, coordinator for the Hudson River Fish Advisory Outreach Project.  “The DEC has a regulation that you can fish, but you cannot take it home, and that’s actually because of contamination that’s been found there.  At the Troy dam a lot of the contamination is held back.”

That’s where Keenan’s efforts come in.

The Outreach Project will enter its third year of funding in June.  The New York State Department of Health began the 20-year program in 2008, and awards grants to agencies that conduct outreach about the advisories regarding fish from the Hudson River.

The outreach project puts materials and money in the hands of community partners to deliver information to the public.  Four groups initially received funding, including two Cornell Cooperative Extensions, one in Rockland County and one in Dutchess County.  Now, those two entities are still working with NYS DOH, as well as another initial fundee, Hudson Basin River Watch and Watershed Assessment Associates.

“Our most important message for the project is that women who are of childbearing age under 50 and children under age 15 should not be eating fish from the Hudson River, at least until after it’s been cleaned up,” said Keenan. Studies have shown that exposure to high levels of PCBs may be associated with low birth weight as well as nervous and immune system disorders.

Beyond that high-risk group, Keenan said, “then it depends on who you are, where you’re fishing and what you catch   …  Close to our office here — we’re in Troy — the fish are pretty highly contaminated.  There’s only four species that men and women over the age of 50 are advised to eat once a month.  As you go further down the river there’s less contamination and you can eat a number of species up to once a month, and then some fish you can eat once a week.”

Fish PCB levels decrease downstream from the city of Troy, but that doesn’t mean the fish are safe.  Also, in those lower Hudson areas further from the much-contested and publicized dredging, the public is not as aware of potential problems with fish.  Last but not least, cadmium is an issue with crabs in the Hudson, and it concentrates in the tamale of crabs (the gelatinous mass in the heads), which will leech into cooking water if not removed.

Hence the need for widespread educational efforts, such as the recent distribution of signage to 200 food banks that serve people along the nearly 200-mile stretch of river that is affected.

The outreach groups are teaching people about the fish advisory through home visits, at health clinics, and in schools.  DOH also partners with others to help deliver their message.  The brochures have been made available at Nory Point Environmental Center and other DEC facilities. The Hudson River Fishermen’s Association is having a family day, and DOH staff will attend.

Rockland County Cornell Cooperative Extension has a strong environmental program, and they use Americorps volunteers in their fish advisory outreach.

Students go out and talk to people on the river,” said Keenan.  “(They) developed their own brochure.  They developed some signs. They did a bus ad, which was great, and worked with the department of health in Rockland County.”

Proprietor of River Haggie Outdoors and environmental educator Fran Martino contracts with the Hudson Basin River Watch to do outreach for the DOH, working in schools in a number of counties.

“I include some type of an art craft project, and I explain to the children that they’re going to take home a few things after my visit, snapshot of the advisory,” said Martino, who sends kids home from school with a fish magnet printed with the DOH phone number.

At a recent visit, Martino used a rubber fish to explain fish anatomy, which helps kids discuss what kinds of fish they or their parents might be catching.  The same fish is used in the art project.  Kids paint it and make Japanese-style fish prints.

Talking with kids is important because they can influence their parents’ behavior, said Martino.  Budget-strapped schools value the free visits.  She also attends summer camps and fairs with fish advisory materials.

Creating materials in other languages is another tactic of the DOH.

“You have immigrants who have moved here from other parts of the world,” said Keenan.  “These chemicals are not something you can smell, taste or in any other way sense, so we have to try and get the message across to them.

A diagram in the materials helps illustrate the fatty areas in the fish where PCBs can accumulate.  By removing the skin and the fat of the fish, and filleting the fish, it’s possible to reduce the PCB levels by about half.

“We recognize we’re not giving people a substitute meal,” said Keenan.  “We’re not in the position to do that, unfortunately.  We’re at least letting people know that if they prepare it a certain way they can get a lot less PCBs in a meal, which is helpful advice.”

Information on New York State Department of Health’s fish advisories can be found at http://nyhealth.gov/fish.  Note the brevity of the address — just another attempt by DOH staff to float their information to the public as easily as possible.

  • Doc Mudd

    A NYS fishing license is required (has been since 2009) to fish along any portion of the Hudson River. Licensed anglers are provided detailed guidelines for consuming fish caught across all of NYS – this has been policy for decades. It is absurd to suggest fishermen are uninformed of the safety of fish taken in NYS.
    This article describes what appears to be a redundant effort to advise anglers of what they already know and have known for more than two decades.
    Sounds like redundant public programming. If any state or federal money supports any portion, this represents an opportunity to cut waste and contribute to a balanced budget. In this economy we cannot afford to purchase redundant inane statements of the obvious, nor do we need to re-broadcast ‘news’ that is 30 years old.
    The author also neglects to report on the quite significant progress of the Hudson fishery since the 1970’s. Indeed, the Hudson was trashed a generation ago, like the Raritan in NJ and so many other waterways, but 30 years of effort has yielded an improvement and something of a renewal.
    This article reports ‘old news’, but there is far more good news than bad to be updated on the topic of Hudson River flora and fauna. The news is mostly good, the reporting in this case is mostly bad.

  • Steve Gilman

    Despite Mr Mud’s claims of redundancy and supposed Good News about the condition of the Hudson River — this is a worthy project, well presented. For those living in the greater Hudson Valley, we continue to seeing any real cleanup receive short-shrift from master-polluter (and major tax shirker) General Electric, who still manages to weasel out of any substantial clean-up efforts.
    The “good news” is that communities and businesses along the river can no longer dump their sewage and industrial waste into the river — and the river, that way at least, is much cleaner for it. PCBs, however, continue to leak out of GE’s underground injection sites and from the natural river scouring of laden sediments — and this remains the major problem of this major Superfund site.
    One of the ways GE has downplayed the risk — and, hence their clean-up responsibilities– is to force compromises with DEC on the number of fish that are supposedly safe to eat per month. The number should actually be closer to ZERO. Ever since an independent study found that swallow’s eggs at various locations along the river’s edge have enough of a PCB content to qualify as toxic waste (swallows feed on river-hatched insects as fish do) the DEC recommendations have been seen as UNSAFE for human consumption.
    Finally, the fact that the “warnings” are buried away in DEC fine print doesn’t mean that (hungary) people who fish out of the Hudson see or really understand the very real risks.
    Hence the critical importance of this project.

  • Licensed fishermen in New York have been keenly aware (by detailed written notice) over 20 years of the situation. That’s simple, undeniable fact.
    One of the shortfalls of the reporting in this article is the failure to document how little tainted fish is actually being consumed and how few people, if any, are hospitalized annually as a result. Warnings appended to licenses have been effective, apparently.
    That leaves only poachers and deluded crackpots to be ‘educated’ by this wasteful programming. Of course, these hard characters cannot be reasoned with, so that cannot be the true intent of the programming.
    Gilman tips the author’s hand with his supportive semi-coherent bashing rant about GE and swallow’s eggs and, of course, the inevitable conspiracy theories. Certainly this grant funded programming is not so much to protect expectant mothers from a well-known risk they are not exposed to (except illegally), so much as it is just another under-the-radar maneuver to scaremonger in our schools and communities. Pretty cheesy.
    This underlying agenda, no doubt, accounts for the inferior reporting displayed in this article spinning 30 year old news.

  • Steve Gilman

    Hope you enjoy your fine kettle of fish, Mr Mud — Bon Apetit!