Joyce Rowley: Community outreach to warn of toxic fish

On a recent summer weekend, community outreach worker Genero Mendez talked to 17 people, mostly families, about the risks of eating the fish they were catching in New Bedford Harbor. He visits the city’s South End fishing spots to educate people who may not realize that the fish they are catching are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs).

“Some people don’t know the fish is contaminated or the risk. They’re just catching a meal,” Mendez said. “Some people say, “I’ve been fishing here for 18 years, and I'm still alive.’ I explain it’s like smoking — you won't get sick now, but later you will.”

Mendez, who speaks Spanish,  and Mayan K'iche, along with Joao Verissimo and Julio Suar, were hired for the summer as multilingual outreach coordinators by the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC) under a $7,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the city’s department of Environmental Stewardship.

The EPA, the city and the CEDC partnered to create the 12-week outreach project, as part of the Community Involvement Plan and clean up of New Bedford Harbor, an EPA Superfund site.

“Our goal is to educate people fishing in the harbor so they can make the best decision in feeding their families,” said Kelsey O'Neill, an EPA community involvement coordinator.

The community involvement plan for the Superfund site cleanup also includes public meetings, public service announcements and working with local stakeholders to develop new ways to get the word out about the extent of the harbor’s contamination.

Michele Paul, the city’s director of environmental stewardship, said there are signs but no mechanism to prevent people from fishing in the harbor.

“That’s why outreach and education is so important, especially for the immigrant community who fish for sustenance,” she said.

Paul noted that the city’s Health Department inspects local restaurants to ensure no harbor fish or shellfish reaches customer tables. New Bedford’s commercial fishermen fish offshore, not in the harbor.

New Bedford, a city of 95,000, has a poverty rate of 23 percent and more than a third of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 undocumented immigrants live in New Bedford.

“A lot of the fishermen are newcomers and are not aware of the risks,” said Corinn Williams, CEDC’s executive director. “People are very appreciative in learning there are these risks.”

Mendez goes out as early as 5:30 in the morning to reach people while they’re out fishing. He explains the outreach program, distributes brochures in Spanish, Portuguese and English that outline EPA recommendations, and collects data via questionnaires.

"The questionnaire gathers information on how often they fish or consume fish caught in the harbor, and whether they were aware of the health concerns,” Williams said.

Since toxic chemicals were first discovered in the harbor in 1987, the EPA has recommended against consuming any fish in Area 1, north of the hurricane barrier. Outside the barrier in Area 2 between Sconticut Neck and Ricketsons Point, EPA recommends against eating lobster and bottom-feeding fish.

In 2010, the recommendation for Area 2 changed, to allow one meal of black sea bass or one meal of shellfish other than lobster per month. In Area 3, from the end of West Island to Mishaum Point known as the Outer Harbor, lobster and scup are still prohibited, but one meal a month of black sea bass is allowed.

EPA recommends against consumption of fish by pregnant or nursing women and children younger than 12 in all three areas, with the exception of one shellfish meal a month from the Outer Harbor.

“In six years the clean up will be done,” O’Neill said. “But it will take some time before the organic life of the harbor floor is free of PCBs. It will stay in the food chain as well. Our goal is to clean the site so it will be fishable.”

“People come from Guatamala, Honduras, El Salvador, Portugal,” Mendez said. “I'm happy that I’m helping the community.”