Is it Safe to Eat the Fish you Catch? – Jeff Little ponders the question during a surprisingly urban shore lunch

Jeff Little ponders the question during a surprisingly urban shore lunch

Digging into a shore lunch of blue catfish in a surprisingly urban location, just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Potomac. All photos courtesy Jeff Little.
Digging into a shore lunch of blue catfish in a surprisingly urban location, just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Potomac. All photos courtesy Jeff Little.

By Jeff Little

The term shore lunch conjures images of some northern Boundary Waters lake, a well worn cast iron skillet and walleye sizzling in oil over an open fire. The shore lunch I enjoyed with two friends recently featured deafening airplane noise from Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport, the constant hum of traffic from the beltway and driftwood gathered from piles of mixed wood and littered motor oil jugs. Who knew that D.C. stood for Delicious Catfish?

At the Bladensburg, Maryland Marina on the Anacostia River several miles upstream, fish consumption advisory posters are stapled to every tenth piling warning anglers (in both English and Spanish) not to eat the fish caught there. Yet somehow I felt comfortable eating two of the many invasive blue catfish caught south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Potomac.

With many waters in the state designated as impaired by pollution, why would I run the risk of consuming fish tainted with mercury, PCB’s and pesticides? My argument is based on a Fish Consumption Advisory Chart published by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

If you take a moment to look through the chart, you’ll find that an 8-ounce portion of striped bass (from a fish greater than 28 inches) caught from the Chesapeake Bay is more heavily laden with these carcinogenic compounds than any of the sub 24-inch blue catfish we cooked on the banks of the urban Potomac River recently. Why the apparent disparity? It has to do with bio-accumulation.

Is your catch safe to eat? Check with your state's wildlife agency for public health advisories. Jeff Little did, and discovered this young blue catfish poses fewer health risks than a trophy Chesapeake Bay striped bass.
Is your catch safe to eat? Check with your state’s wildlife agency for public health advisories. Jeff Little did, and discovered this young blue catfish poses fewer health risks than a trophy Chesapeake Bay striped bass.

The older a fish is, the more forage fish it has consumed, and the more mercury, PCBs and other toxins it has accumulated in it’s fatty tissues over it’s lifetime. In general, it’s better to eat younger fish than older ones. But the bottom line is still that you need to look up if its safe to eat any fish from a particular body of water. Do an online search for “fish consumption advisory” in your state. I took further steps to minimize what trace amounts of toxins would be in our meal by taking filet preparation one step further than removing the skin.

I filleted the catfish, leaving the skin on, then placed the filet skin side down on the cutting board, slicing a quarter inch or so into the meat. I also excised the sliver of somewhat fatty and somewhat darker tissue near the lateral line before wrapping the filet in tin foil with some salt and McCormick’s Cajun Seasoning. By trimming the meat this way, the fatty portion where the toxins accumulate is gone.

Some might simply wrinkle their nose at the thought of catfish. Once my buddies Dave and Scott opened up the pockets of aluminum foil that our filets were cooked in on a bed of coals, they didn’t hesitate. “It’s much lighter than I would have thought” said Scott, who had caught his first blue catfish that morning.

The cultural reality is that Marylanders are used to eating striped bass. Many anglers look forward to striped bass trophy season in the bay, and will eat a 48-inch fish without a second thought. They will cook it up for their grandkids, who have an even greater vulnerability to these toxins, not knowing what damage they are doing.

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After cleaning up our urban shore lunch, Dave, Scott and I paddled back out into the channel, dropped baited heavy 8/0 circle hooks down and continued to catch these plentiful and voracious fish, almost as fast as we could get the line to the bottom.

Jeff Little has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in dietetics. He is a Regional Pro Staff Director for Wilderness Systems Kayaks who also produces instructional fishing video for his Tight Line Junkie’s Journal Pivotshare channel. Click through for a preview of his Shore Lunch video.