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Anacostia Catfish Warning Doesn't Deter Daily Catch

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Bobby Jones spends most of his days reeling in river catfish from the Anacostia River.
Jessica Gould
Bobby Jones spends most of his days reeling in river catfish from the Anacostia River.

On the banks of the Anacostia River, Southeast, D.C., resident Bobby Jones is doing what he does every day.

"Today I'm fishing," he says.

And it doesn’t take long before he begins bragging about his biggest catch.

"The one that I caught was about 60 pounds of catfish. That was the biggest I ever caught," he says.

That was a good day. But Jones says every day he spends fishing is a good day: "A bad day of fishing is better than a good day's work."

It’s a positive attitude -- and he needs it. Jones has been out of work for five years. So fishing for catfish isn't just a pastime. It's a big part of his diet.

"I just bake them and put a little hot sauce on them. And they’re real good," he says.

But Anacostia Riverkeeper Dottie Yunger, who advocates for clean water, says eating catfish can be dangerous. She says studies show many of the brown bullheaded catfish in the Anacostia have contaminants in their tissues and cancerous lesions on their bodies.

"Will you get immediately sick from eating a fish from the river that might be contaminated? Probably not," she says. "You may not feel any effect. But there are effects that are happening at the cellular level, at the molecular level. It's affecting brain development, it's affecting memory. It's affecting cognitive skills."

Because of the contamination, the District Department of the Environment puts advisories on its website and on fishing licenses, instructing people not to eat the catfish, carp and eel they catch. But Yunger says many anglers aren't aware of the advisories -- because they don’t speak English, have trouble reading, or don’t have access to the Internet.

So in June, a group of local and federal researchers is kicking off a campaign to boost awareness. They plan to survey Anacostia anglers and find out how they can get their message across. The survey is being sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

Meanwhile, Jones says he plans to keep on doing what he's doing.

"I grew up fishing and hunting," he says.

And, he says, he hasn't become sick yet.

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