Volume 12, Issue 25 ~ June 17-23, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Toxic chemicals put Bay catches on the warning list

I been doing this for 100 years, and it ain’t killed me yet.
—Raymond Green as quoted in the Sun when advised not to eat the mustard of crabs from the Patapsco River

There’s something wrong with Raymond’s arithmetic; he’s 76, so how can he pack a hundred years into a tad more than three quarters of a century? Methinks there’s something wrong, too, about his trust in crabs — and the mustard therein — from the Patapsco.

Look, I like the Patapsco. I’m rooting for it to get cleaned up, and I think that will happen — though I doubt I can count on it in my lifetime. Too bad, seeing that I practically live on that river up here in Riviera Beach in North County. It sure would be nice to trap a batch of crabs at the pier, steam ’em up, and enjoy an old-fashioned crab feast. That includes the mustard.

Though I admit to being a transplanted Marylander, I am among those who find the yellowish-green mustard a gourmet’s delight. But not the mustard from Patapsco River Crabs. I’ve been in this state long enough — and likewise have eaten enough crabs — that I’m finicky about the waters my crabs come from if I’m to curl a finger and capture either the mustard or the little white stringy things also in the abdomen of the crustaceans at my table.

I was down at the community pier the other day and watched a couple youngsters work collapsible crab traps while fishing. They had two crabs and one white perch of about six inches. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them their catch could be questionable by Maryland Department of the Environment standards.

News that Hits Home
You see, I live on Stoney Creek, and close enough that if the trees on the cliff dropping down to the wet stuff were cut, I would have a good view of both the Patapsco and Bethlehem Steel on the other side of that river. A fisherman might say that the Burton household is within a long cast of the Patapsco. Depending on the tide, waters of the Patapsco wash into Stoney Creek, or vice versa.

From the creek, I’ve eaten white and yellow perch, bluefish, pickerel, Norfolk spot and rockfish caught from the pier and more than a few crabs — though not their mustard. I’ve caught a few big carp, also some eels and catfish, but those all went back pronto.

I’ve long discounted that talk I heard as a boy that if a fish is alive and hungry (why else would it take a bait?) that it’s fitt’n’ to eat. Then I was fishing in Vermont and Rhode Island, where generally waters were cleaner — at least by the standards of the Patapsco.

Also, over the years I have learned that the older (and bigger) a fish of any kind is, the more time it has had to ingest carcinogens, things like PCBs, which for the most part aren’t passed out of their bodies, instead accumulating within. Over the years I’ve stopped by the Hanover Street Bridge south of Harbor Hospital to chat with fishermen and crabbers; very few harbored concern that what they were catching could be harmful to their health. They were like Raymond Green.

In his talk with a Sun reporter, Raymond also said “I’m gonna keep eating it [mustard of crabs], and if I die, I’ll die happy.” It’s the same thinking many fishers and crabbers of the Inner and Outer Baltimore Harbor (all part of the Patapsco) have about their catches. Sure, I’d like to die happy, but I’m not yet anxious to take that bus.

When’s a Fish Fitt’n’ to Eat?
It came as no surprise that Maryland Department of the Environment named the Patapsco River and the Back River in its latest advisory as waters where one should be more cautious about eating their fin and shellfish. Too many PCBs, especially for white perch, catfish, carp, crab mustard and eels. No need for me to worry about the latter; I’d die before, not after, I ate a sea snake.

There were a few surprises in the advisory, among them the recommendation that women of child-bearing age and youngsters under six shouldn’t eat Bay rockfish more than once a month. Seeing that I’m neither, I can enjoy 24 or more striper meals a month. I assume, if the fish are small, the sky’s the limit. Overall, rockfish were listed as “healthy choices.”

So were white perch, but only those on the Eastern Shore from the Chester River south. Perch on this side of the Bay, including tributaries: no more than 12 meals a year; fewer if caught north of Bush and Chester rivers, and five if taken from Baltimore Harbor. Flounder were tabbed healthy choices for all the Bay and its tributaries; they spend a half-year at most in the Chesapeake.

It’s 12 meals a year for catfish and eels on the lower Western Shore to the mouth of the Potomac, and the same for crab mustard — though none at all from the Patapsco and Back rivers. It’s also nix for catfish, eel and carp and crab mustard from Baltimore Harbor, as it is for catfish of longer than 18 inches in the Potomac and Middle rivers and carp in Back and Middle rivers.

Where It Comes From, Nobody Knows
Has the time come when fish mongers should advise where their seafood is caught? Sportsfishermen and those who claim some of their catches know such info. But is it a game of Russian roulette for fish buyers? That’s something for Department of the Environment to think about — but doing it would be rocking the boat seeing that Maryland touts the Chesapeake and its bounty at every turn.

Look at it this way: White perch is a popular choice; the price is right and they’re just about always available. But if caught in Western Shore tributaries and the northern Bay stem, scientists say not more than 12 meals a year. Yet we’re left to guess where our perch at market come from. More than a few hail from the northern Bay stem and tributaries such as the Potomac and Patuxent.

I feel less concerned because I catch all the perch I eat, and usually at the Bay Bridge, but perhaps I’m too trusting. Most perch spend the colder months in tributaries, then move into the Bay proper in warmer months. So those I catch at the Bay Bridge probably came from the Magothy, or perhaps the Severn, which flies the precautionary pennant.

If I were a worry wart, which I’m not, I’d hope they hailed from the Chester. But, seeing I’ve eaten an awful lot of perch, rockfish and crabs, including the mustard, from the Chesapeake complex since I arrived here in ’56 and I’m still kicking, I have no plans to change the menu.

That’s my personal choice, but there are commercial fishermen and charter skippers who don’t speak well of Department of the Environment and its advisories. Scare tactics are bad for business, they say. I buy neither. The public has a right to know, before they make their choices. PCBs are nasty things, and not everyone is like Raymond Green who can squeeze 100 years into 76. Enough said …

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