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For the very first time, D.C. officials are warning that one of the region’s staple fish is unsafe to eat.

Last week, the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment released a fish consumption advisory saying that local rockfish, also known as striped bass or striper, contained potentially dangerous levels of an industrial toxin called polychlorinated biphenyl. The lingering chemical was used decades ago in the manufacturing of electrical equipment, floor finish, motor oil, and more. Animals exposed to the toxin have developed cancer as well as a range of problems to the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.

Carp and eel also made the do-not-eat list, while several other species of fish have been upgraded to safer levels. But the warning against rockfish, which can be found on many local menus, sent the most shockwaves across the local seafood industry.

Of course, D.C. has no commercial fisheries, so the warnings only apply to recreational anglers. Environmental agencies in Virginia and Maryland say rockfish caught in their states’ waters is still safe to eat. But given that rockfish are migratory fish that aren’t confined to District waters, should consumers be concerned?

The last time that DOEE issued a fish advisory was 1994, although it has done chemical testing sporadically over the years. The agency first found high PCB levels in rockfish in 2013. At the time, the department only tested a single rockfish.

“When they got the first results back and these numbers were so high, there were some folks in the room that were like, ‘Wait a minute. Surely this can’t be right. These numbers are way too high,’” says DOEE spokesperson Julia Christian.

DOEE decided to collect more samples. In April and May of 2015, the agency caught six more rockfish and found equally high levels of the toxin. The samples were relatively young, small fish from popular recreational areas near the upper Potomac River.

While six fish might not seem like much of a sample size, D.C. Water Quality Division Associate Director Collin Burell says it was enough for DOEE to warn against eating rockfish. “From a statistical standpoint, that is an adequate number,” he says.

Meanwhile, the D.C. report finds that other fish caught here are now safer to eat. In fact, the contaminant levels have gone down for some resident fish that spawn and live in D.C. waters. For example, it’s now considered safe for adults to eat up to three servings per month of D.C.-caught blue catfish, which was previously on the do-not-eat list.

These findings seem to imply that D.C. waters aren’t necessarily the source of the contaminant.

“The fish are getting polluted somewhere, and at this point, it doesn’t look like that’s happening here,” says Christian. “They’re coming here, obviously, and so when you catch them here, you are catching polluted fish.”

No one can say exactly where the PCB pollution originates from or why the levels in rockfish spiked. Burrell says the chemical could have been unearthed from river sediment or runoff.

District officials seem hesitant to comment on what their results mean for other jurisdictions. “We make no assumptions about what occurs outside of the District,” says Burell. “We didn’t approach it from the standpoint of commercial fishing.”

But the fact remains that rockfish migrate all along the East Coast, and fish found in D.C. waters are from the same population that can be found in the Chesapeake Bay and other portions of the Potomac.

“There certainly isn’t a D.C. population of fish. Most striped bass move… So a problem in D.C., there’s a strong possibility that it’s a problem for Maryland and New Jersey and Connecticut and Maine,” says Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for Oceana.

The Maryland Department of the Environment issues its own fish consumption advisory, but it hasn’t been updated since 2011. The agency says rockfish is safe to eat, but it still recommends limited portions. For rockfish caught in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay that are longer than 28 inches, the state recommends adults eat only one eight-ounce serving per month. (For children, it’s less.) Smaller fish, which are younger and therefore haven’t absorbed as many toxins, are slightly safer. For Chesapeake Bay–caught rockfish smaller than 28 inches long, Maryland recommends no more than three eight-ounce servings per month. The guidelines are meant exclusively for recreational anglers.

Toxins typically concentrate in the skin and belly of the fish. For many years, Maryland officials have recommended that recreational anglers remove these parts and the dark meat from the filet before cooking. Grilling or broiling the fish also helps reduce contaminants, including PCBs, because the fat drips away.

In its 2011 report, MDE actually found that rockfish has become safer to eat over the years. The concentration of PCBs in rockfish between 2009 and 2010 is less than half of what it was in samples collected from 2001 to 2005.

But are test results from 2011 still accurate? “Something that’s five, six years old is still relatively new information,” says Jay Apperson, MDE spokesperson. “We still think these are very valid numbers and the advisories that we have are very valid as well.” He points out that PCBs have been banned since 1979, so it’s not like there’s more of the chemical in the environment. “We don’t expect the situation to change much at all,” he says.

Apperson couldn’t say when the department would do further testing for PCBs in fish.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Lynn Fegley says the odds are actually slim that the locally caught rockfish served in area restaurants or supermarkets come from what appears to be a relatively small contaminated area. “They are likely larger fish that have been ranging over far broader waters, even if they’re captured down at the mouth of the Potomac,” she says. These fish are likely “feeding and living in areas where PCBs are not a risk.”

More importantly, Fegley adds that whatever ends up on your plate at a restaurant adheres to standards from the Food and Drug Administration, which tests for PCBs in commercially sold fish.

“I’m a mom, I have kids, and I’m also personally pretty freaky about my food,” Fegley says. “This does not make me hesitate to go order rockfish or buy rockfish.”

D.C.-based seafood wholesaler Profish will continue to buy and sell rockfish from Maryland, given that authorities say the commercial product is safe. Profish Director of Sustainability John Rorapaugh says the D.C. report raises concern for Potomac fisheries, but right now, there’s no science showing fish are contaminated with unsafe levels beyond District waters. “We can’t make decisions off of one specific report that has to deal with a small area of water,” he says.

Others are likewise taking their cues from Virginia and Maryland officials. Black Restaurant Group, for example, is continuing to buy rockfish from Maryland and Virginia. District Fishwife owner Fiona Lewis says she has been getting emails from her suppliers saying “don’t panic.”

Meanwhile, Jessup, Md.-based seafood wholesaler J.J. McDonnell very briefly paused buying any Potomac rockfish while it waited for more information, says Steve Vilnit, the director of marketing and business development. But after a conference call with Maryland and Virginia environmental agencies last week, the wholesaler got reassurance that commercial rockfish was still safe. “We’re going to keep carrying it,” he says. “We’re leaving it up to the customers. We’re going to educate them on what we learned.”

Vilnit says he wouldn’t be surprised if rockfish sales were somewhat affected by the report, but so far, he hasn’t seen that. J.J. McDonnell got fewer than a dozen calls—“not a lot considering the amount of people we sell to on a daily basis”—from restaurants and retailers looking for more information about the PCB levels last week. But ultimately, Vilnit says the public will be the deciding factor.

“Customers are going to be nervous about the product until they get more information, so that might lead to a decrease in sales,” Vilnit says. That said, J.J. McDonnell didn’t see a decrease in sales in the immediate aftermath of the news. Likewise, Lewis says she’s been selling Maryland rockfish and no customers have asked about the PCB levels.

If that somehow changes, Vilnit expects restaurateurs would switch to farm-raised rockfish rather than removing it from their menus altogether.

“It’s like taking a crab cake off the menu,” Vilnit says. “That’s a tough thing to do in this area.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to jsidman@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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