The Mississippi River has been flowing fast and high — and that’s meant the fishing has been good. But the river carries more than fish, water and dirt. It’s also a giant drainage basin for 40 percent of the country — and and picks up pollutants along the way.
If you fish from the Mississippi, is it safe to eat your catch? Are there any health concerns?
When Willie Tate isn’t at work, he’s standing on the bank of the Mississippi River with a fishing pole in his hand. A pole so big and trusty he gave it a nickname: Big Dog.
“I love him,” Tate says with a smile.
Tate’s go-to spot is the End of the World. A slice of grassy levee in the Bywater, tucked between the old Hebert Defense Complex and the Industrial Canal. He comes ready for a long day with a tackle box and bait on hand, plus snacks and cold drinks. He usually comes alone, but sometimes his Uncle Andrew tags along.
He loves the peace of mind he finds on the river. It’s quieter than the rest of the city. But he lives for the thrill of the catch.
“The bigger fish the better the fight,” he says. “I love to go for the big one.”
He catches everything — bass, trout, catfish — and mostly just catch and release. But every now and then he’ll bring some home for dinner. His favorite to eat is Yellow Catfish.
“I mean it's like caviar,” says Tate. “Mississippi caviar!”
When he does take some home to eat, he prepares it all kinds of ways: steaks, nuggets, Catfish Couvillion. He’s heard skepticism around eating fish from the river, but says he isn’t concerned.
“I mean a lot of people sit and criticize the fishing that’s on the Mississippi River,” he says. “Nobody never died from eating a fish that’s out the Mississippi.”
He says the river is so big and moves so fast, that any contaminants would be really diluted. And even if it’s risky — and he doesn’t believe it is — it’s worth the risk.
“Cause one day you gotta leave here on some kinda note. And if fishing’s what’s gonna take me, at least I know I went peacefully. And I wasn’t…hungry.”
So to find out what might be in the water, I talked to toxicologist Kevin Armbrust. He leads the Department of Environmental Sciences at LSU, and studies chemicals in the environment.
“The contaminants of concern that I'm always worried about whenever I'm eating fish are going to be, first of all, microbiological,” says Armbrust.
Bacteria like E. coli, salmonella and listeria.
Bacteria get in the water from sewage or animal waste runoff. But Armbrust says as long as you cook your fish well, that’s not a huge problem.
The bigger concern is legacy contaminants — chemicals and metals that were used long ago, but still linger in the environment, like mercury. Mercury can stunt brain development in children and cause heart and kidney problems in adults. And it’s found in the environment everywhere — across the world.
But Maureen Lichtveld says that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dangerous. She’s a doctor, professor of public health, and environmental policy chair at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. She says it’s all about dosage.
“You would have to be exposed to a very high level for a very long time to see those effects on the heart or on the kidney,” she says. “Typically we don't see those high levels anymore in the United States.”
Lichtveld says regulations passed back in the 1970s led to the decline.
Back to the original question: if you catch a fish from the Mississippi River, is it safe to eat? LSU toxicologist Kevin Armbrust says it’s impossible to answer such a broad question.
“You can't ever apply a blanket statement to a fish out of the Mississippi River or oyster out of the Gulf of Mexico,” he says. “It just depends.”
Depends on things like location. Old industrial sites, or areas with slow water flow can be more likely spots for contamination to collect.
Responsibility for monitoring state water bodies falls to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). Spokesman Greg Langley says LDEQ posts advisories if there are any problems — signs on site and online.
“We don’t have any advisories on the Mississippi. It’s safe to eat the fish there,” says Langley.
Langley says the state is concerned with other waterways in the state more than the Mississippi. Lakes and bayous with stagnant water tend to collect more contaminants, and there are fish consumption advisories in other bodies of water.
Langley says the Mississippi River “has such and immense volume” that it “would wash away just about anything.”
So according to officials and experts, it is safe to eat that Mississippi River catfish. But Willie Tate already knew that.
He jumps up from his chair when he notices something tugging at his line.
“Big Dog showed up!” he exclaims, as he reels the fish in — pulling and tugging and using his whole body. Eventually, it’s on land.
“That’s a fight,” he says says proudly, but short of breath.
It’s a medium sized catfish — maybe 20 pounds or so. He wriggles the hook free and plops the fish into a white bucket. He says his Uncle Andrew is making sandwiches later.
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