Quillback carpsucker. Flathead catfish. Gizzard shad. American eel. Carp. If you catch one of these in the James River, you’re better off throwing it back in.
Danny Hodge, a visiting fisherman recently stationed on the James, did just that when he says he reeled in a 20-pound catfish last month.
“I wouldn’t eat none of them,” he says, standing on the riverbank in Scottsville. With a tackle box to his left and a fishing pole gripped in his right hand, he says the warning signs about contaminated fish (there’s no threat to swimmers) posted around the river worry him.
Locally, those five species are most likely to be contaminated with high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls—or PCBs—according to signs posted by the Virginia Department of Health at James River public access locations.
PCBs, a known carcinogen, are a group of man-made chemicals that consist of 209 individual compounds and were once used as coolants and lubricants in transformers and other electrical equipment. Though the federal government banned their production in 1977, their legacy remains.
Chris French, a former Virginia Department of Environmental Quality employee and a current member of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s toxic contaminants group, says PCBs are still entering waterways from old, remediated sites that haven’t been cleaned up, and also from burning waste oils.
When PCBs wash into a body of water, they settle into vegetation, which travels up the food chain when a big fish eats a smaller one. The highest levels of the toxins are found in the most predatory fish, such as catfish.
Bob Peyer, another out-of-towner, sat in his jacked-up black truck while he looked out over the water. “Never eat the catfish,” he warns, and mentions the PCB levels in his home state of Wisconsin, where the Fox River is so toxic that those studying it suit up in protective gear and respirators before wading in.
How much exposure is too much?
“Oddly enough, it really varies from state to state as to what the acceptable level of ingestion is,” says Pat Calvert, a James River Association riverkeeper. For at least six years, he says, the DEQ has been working to set a total maximum daily load of PCBs and a pollution diet for the river. Without establishing those numbers, it’s hard to initiate cleanup efforts.
“I would like to see the DEQ step up and prioritize setting the [total maximum daily load] for the James River,” Calvert says, but progress has been slow. In the past, he’s volunteered to post warning signs, like the one Hodge saw, to raise awareness for the issue—and because the Virginia Department of Health is required to post them at all public access points, though many sites are missed.
“Over the last 10 years or so, science has indicated that PCBs can also mimic hormones in various animals and people,” French says, and the endocrine disruptors could cause developmental concerns. He believes more studies on the actual effects of PCBs need to be commissioned, and existing ones need to be updated with new technologies to better reflect their current status.
“It could be a bigger issue than we realize, or not as much of an issue as we once believed,” French says. “We really have no way of knowing until we have updated and current, relevant data.”