by Caitlyn Johnstone
October 18, 2018
Along the outer edges of Washington, D.C., a forgotten river runs through a paved and crowded metropolitan suburb. Known as the Anacostia, this urban river has struggled to receive more than an F health grade for decades. With the help of the Anacostia Watershed Society, other organizations and individual residents, the river is slowly improving. One of the main strategies to improve the Anacostia is to get people acquainted with it—at times, that even comes with food.
Festival del Rio Anacostia is a free bilingual event that marries cultural celebration and environmental education at Bladensburg Waterfront Park each October. On the water, a naturalist guide leads boat tours every half hour and residents try their hand at free fishing off the pier. On land, cheerful music pipes over visitors that wind their way between exhibits with water safety tips, art activities, live birds and tanks swimming with local fish.
At the Chesapeake Bay Program table, I am doing a filleting and cooking demonstration of safe fish preparation with catfish. A small boy in a bright red coat is fixated on the sample tasting plate. “Hang on, little guy,” I say with a laugh. “I have to put the lime juice on it first, remember?”
Over the last several years, the Chesapeake Bay Program has been working on an effort to educate the public about safety in fish consumption. The old saying goes “you are what you eat,” and fish that live in polluted waters tend to ingest pollutants. Fish consumption advisories are intended to let people know what fish species are safe to eat and in what quantities.
Catch and release fishing is promoted on the Anacostia while it remains polluted, and the fish being prepared at our table came from Ivy City Smokehouse in Washington, D.C., rather than its waters. However, many D.C. residents still rely on the river for their dinner, and it is important to know how to reduce exposure to toxic contaminants in fish.
Polluted waterways include several kinds of contaminants that react in different ways. PCBs, a contaminant common in urban areas, concentrates in the fat and skin of a fish. By filleting a fish to remove the skin and throwing away used cooking oil, you can make a fish much safer to consume. Festival-goers got to test that out in samples while we talked about safe practices, and everyone took home a recipe card with safety information on the back.
The goal for the Anacostia is to be fishable and swimmable by 2025, and festivalgoers chat about ways to make that happen while snacking on samples. With people experiencing the river in action, learning ways to help it and tasting that possibility at fun events like the Festival del Rio Anacostia, the health of this river and the enjoyment of the people who live on it will only improve.