Striped bass doing fine in Hudson River

Pressure on population of fish eased by PCB restrictions on catch

April 03, 2003|By James Gorman | James Gorman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The dredging of the Hudson River for PCBs will be starting a year later than expected, in 2006 instead of 2005, but the striped bass season in the river opened this spring, right on time.

There is no direct connection between the two events. The Environmental Protection Agency needs more time to plan the dredging. And the fishing for stripers has been going on for years with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the river. In fact, there are more stripers in the river now than there have been in decades. They migrate up the river in the millions to spawn. It is almost as if the toxic chemicals are good for them.

That is not the case, of course. No one can be sure exactly why fish populations rise and fall, but one obvious and important ingredient is fishing pressure. Greatly restricted fishing has reduced that pressure on Hudson River stripers. Changes in regulations were prompted partly by the health risk to people of the PCBs that accumulate in the fat of fish, and partly by a general decline in striper populations.

No commercial fishing

There is now no commercial striped bass fishing on the Hudson above the George Washington Bridge and there has not been for quite a few years.

Sport anglers can keep one striper a day in the river above the bridge, but health recommendations suggest eating no more than one a month, and none for children and women of childbearing age. Many anglers could not care less, since they like to catch the fish and let them go. So the stripers, from a fisherman's point of view, are doing great.

Other rivers have improved as sport fisheries after problems with PCBs were uncovered. The Housatonic in Connecticut is one of them. It has catch-and-release stretches for trout that provide some of the best freshwater fly-fishing in the Northeast.

I have fished both rivers and had started to think of PCBs in stripers as something like the cardiac glucosides in milkweed that monarch butterflies ingest. The glucosides are not bad for the butterflies, but they make birds that eat the butterflies sick, so birds do not eat them. PCBs can make people sick, causing cancer or interfering with embryonic development, so people -- at least people who worry about what they eat -- do not eat the stripers. Although the consequences of pollution are all unintended, surely protective inedibility of game fish would be among the least expected.

What was left out of this equation was the effect of PCBs on the fish themselves. I called Adria Elskus, an assistant professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Kentucky, who has done research on the effects of various pollutants on fish.

Are PCBs bad for fish? I asked. Unequivocally yes, she said. They are not at all the equivalent of glucosides. Monarchs are well adapted to ingesting those chemicals and do not suffer from them. But, Elskus said, PCBs and other chlorinated substances like dioxin can hurt the ability of fish to reproduce, affect hormones, decrease the chances of survival for the offspring and cause skeletal deformities and devastating defects in heart development.

The studies that showed these effects, Elskus said, were mostly done not on striped bass, but "on the lab rats of the fish world" -- species that are easy to study in the lab, like rainbow trout, zebra fish and Japanese medaka. It is, however, quite sensible to expect stripers to experience similar effects. The reason is that when it comes to these chemical effects, "Fish Is Fish," as the children's author Leo Lionni so presciently announced in his story with that title.

The actual effect of PCBs on Hudson River fish has not been clearly established, said Emily Monosson, an independent toxicologist who did a study of just this subject for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that was published in 1999. But PCBs are present in the river at levels that should be causing damage to fish.

Why then, are the fish doing so well? The answer is that the effects of unrestrained fishing -- mass fishicide -- are much worse than the effects of current levels of PCBs.

Suppose that people were in the position of striped bass. Aliens -- to whom we were the equivalent of striped bass, in both intelligence and taste -- came to Earth to harvest us by the hundreds of millions. This went on for many generations until the human population was really dwindling, at which point the aliens realized that the exhaust from their spaceships included a chemical that accumulated in our tissues and posed a danger to them. What would they do? Turn to catch and release, probably. Oddly, this is an exact description of alien abductions, which makes you wonder: Do fish have trouble making other fish believe that they have been hooked, reeled in, photographed, and then, inexplicably, released?

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