On Detroit’s far east side, Mariner Park is a hot spot of activity for local fishers. But the river bottom here is also a hot spot for pollutants that make their way into fish.
That’s where Riverwalkers come in. The program, staffed by the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, Wayne State University, and community volunteers, walks the Detroit River shoreline every year with one goal: To make sure people who fish the Detroit River are educated about health implications of consuming their catch.
The program reached nearly 1300 anglers at 21 locations on the Detroit River in 2020 — most of whom –73%– were eating the fish they caught, according to their surveys.
The city’s industrial legacy has left the Detroit River contaminated with harmful chemicals that may impact wildlife, fish, and humans who may eat them. The main pollutants found in the river are mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which have entered the river over the years from factory runoff and air pollution.
In 2014, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Wayne State University conducted a survey of 275 anglers who fished the Detroit River, and found that anglers consuming fish on average had 2.5 times more mercury and at least twice as much PCBs in their bodies than the average American.
Detroit native James Bridgforth has been volunteering with Riverwalkers for about eight years. Bridgforth claims he’s not much of a fisherman himself, but he does this work to ensure the community is safely enjoying the many types of fish available from the Detroit River.
“I like talking to the people. I like for them to be aware of the chemicals in the water, the chemicals in the fish, particularly when it comes to the bottom feeder fish like catfish,” Bridgforth told Planet Detroit.
Catfish are a staple for many minority groups, including African-Americans. But catfish are bottom feeders and predator fish, meaning they are exposed to pollutants as they forage for smaller fish along the river bottom, and contaminants get more concentrated in their bodies as they eat contaminated fish over time.
According to a 2018 study, the health risks associated with eating polluted fish affect the Black community more than any other group fishing on the Detroit River.
Dr. Donna Kashian is the director of Environmental Sciences at Wayne State and a contributor to the study. She had suspected that fish advisories in the United States were ignoring the needs of minority communities, and the research confirmed those concerns.
The study also found that communities of color are less likely to be aware of the risks of consuming contaminated fish because of the State of Michigan’s failure to warn them successfully. It also found that Detroiters take fish home more often than downriver anglers, and suggested that Detroit anglers, predominantly people of color, are in a distinctly higher risk category for fish contaminant exposure, creating an environmental justice issue.
Kashian and her team found that the state was not testing catfish in the Detroit River for contaminants but instead relied on samples from Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. That’s a problem because the Detroit River is a toxic hotspot because of its contaminated river sediments — and is the target of a multimillion-dollar federal cleanup effort.
“It became very obvious that there were significant problems,” Kashian told Planet Detroit.
The researchers lobbied with the State to update its consumption advisory for the Detroit River to include catfish, which it did in 2012.
Michigan’s current Eat Safe Fish Guide advisory lists most fish from the Detroit River — including the catfish and silver bass that are popular with Black communities — as “limited” for consumption. That means it is “usually OK to eat those fish once or twice per year” unless you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, breastfeeding, have a health problem like diabetes or cancer, or are under the age of 15 — in which case you should avoid eating them altogether.
But Kashian and her colleagues were concerned that the message was too harsh and scary, and might be ignored by anglers.
“You can’t take someone’s culture away,” Kashian said. “You can’t say — you know what? These fish are bad — eat something else. So we started trying to figure out … how do we convey the message?”
An early brochure warned in bright red letters that no one should eat carp or catfish from the Detroit River. But Kashian and her team worked with community members to soften the language in educational materials to recognize the vital role catfish plays in Detroit’s Black culture while still protecting vulnerable groups.
“[The goal is] to try and change behavior, not what fish to eat. So if you’re going to eat catfish, please don’t deep fry it in the same oil over and over again because the oil becomes PCB soup. So just change the oil,” Kashian said. “Then, if you can remove the fat and the skin, that’ll also help remove some of the contaminants.”
Kashian cautions that children and women of childbearing age should not eat highly contaminated fish from the Detroit River.
The state’s brochure on fish contaminants, which was informed by Kashian’s work, focuses on safe ways to consume fish — highlighting the “3 C’s” of fish preparation — choose safe fish, clean away fat and skin, and cook using a grill to allow contaminant-laden fat to drip away. Signs with similar information are placed at fishing locations along the Detroit River.
Kashian’s research found that fish advisory information often does not effectively reach minorities, women, and people with low levels of educational attainment. The Riverwalkers program explicitly targets these groups, with volunteers like Bridgforth bridging the gap between the institutions and the people.
“It did not make sense for a bunch of white academics to go down to the river and give advice,” Kashian said. “[The Riverwalkers] …. know the language, and they were more relatable to the people if we were going to get the message across.”
Bridgforth said it is important to give helpful advice about safe fishing guidelines without scaring people into not eating fish at all.
At Mariner Park, Bridgforth walked over to a gentleman with a canvas “Eat Safe Fish” tote bag full of educational brochures. While showing the man the literature, he explained safe methods of identifying and cooking fish from the river.
The angler, Gerald Whitman, said that he uses fishing as a time to relax and most often throws his catch back due to the pollutants. He said he already knew some of the informationBridgforth shared, but said it was great to have the material on hand since he often takes his grandchildren fishing.
“The whole objective is not to have people be afraid to eat fish — we just want them to do it in moderation,” said Bridgforth. And also within the guidelines that we’re offering here. So we don’t want to scare anybody. We just want them to be aware of what they need to do to be safe.
This story was produced with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
Reporting for this article was made possible in part by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources (www.IJNR.org).