Rendez Padgett illustration
All the little fish in our waterways are killers. Or at least, it can seem that way when you read the state and federal health warnings. Mercury is a brain destroyer and can damage most major organs. PCB contamination can cause cancer. And don't forget the panoply of bacterial organisms that can light your villi on fire and decimate your digestive system. If you don't want to risk blurred vision, headache, itchy skin and even — on rare occasions — fatal vomiting, then watch it when you eat seafood.
That being said, put a plate of glistening, ice-cold raw oysters in front of me, and I forget all about that. I lose my fear when I see melted butter and a platter of shrimp encrusted with Old Bay. So how high is the actual risk?
PCBs are a problem in Virginia, says Dan Dietrich of the Virginia Department of Health's epidemiology office. "They were chemicals that were banned in the United States in the '70s. They were used as hydraulic fluid, fire retardant or coolant in power transformers," he says. "They were a stable chemical that didn't break down easily — but because of that stability, it takes a very long time for them to go away." PCB exposure can cause birth defects in children and cancer in anyone. Unregulated dumping of the chemicals by factories in the past is the reason that PCBs and other pollutants are still in the water.
Bill Street, executive director of the James River Association, says that along with PCBs, "unfortunately, there are still lingering concerns about mercury from coal-fired power plants." Excessive levels of mercury can cause heart problems, neurological problems, kidney damage and brain damage. Mercury is a natural byproduct of burning coal, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the emissions from the power plants (read: smoke) wind up on the ground and in rainwater — which subsequently falls into our lakes and rivers.
Although most fishing is no longer banned along the James, there are state advisories that give one pause. North of the I-95 bridge, carp caught in the river shouldn't be eaten more than twice a month, and on the south side of the bridge, carp shouldn't be eaten at all. The same goes for large flathead catfish. The advisories also cover other varieties of fish, and at a glance, it might make the paranoid forgo locally caught fish indefinitely.
On the Elizabeth River in Hampton Roads, the blue crab has been affected, too, although the PCB contamination, according to Dietrich, seems to be localized within the mustardy tomalley (actual name: hepatopancreas) and not within the crabmeat itself. Of course, how you might eat a crab and avoid the tomalley without rinsing away most of the crab's flavor isn't clear. Although the advisory is only for one 5-mile-long estuary, there's almost no way of finding out where the crabs you bought may have come from, exactly.
Oysters also absorb PCBs, but usually the bivalves' origin, much like wine, is a large part of their marketing. Rivers like the Rappahannock and the Lynnhaven are big clean-up success stories and are now producing some of the best-tasting — and safest — oysters around. In fact, varieties from these rivers can be hard to find locally because most are shipped to places like Las Vegas and New York City.
Asked if he would eat oysters from the James River, Street says, "Shellfish beds are closed in certain areas [of the James River], and people should be mindful of that. However, in the open areas, I certainly enjoy oysters very much and encourage others to eat them."
"Shellfish that are cooked will add another level of safety," he says. And that safety extends beyond pollution contamination to bacteria and viruses, as well. Oysters infected with a naturally occurring bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, and eaten raw can cause vomiting, diarrhea and even death. They can also carry hepatitis A and the norovirus if the water in which they were living was contaminated with raw sewage. Not every oyster (or even most) is contaminated, but there's no way of telling if the one you happen to be slipping into your mouth with a little cocktail sauce happens to be dangerous.
Eating fish is safer. Dietrich says that when there has been a raw-sewage spill, the only advisory is to wash the fish thoroughly before cooking and eating, and to limit consumption to one serving a day.
If seafood — fish and shellfish alike — isn't kept cold, according to the FDA, the kind of bacteria or virus that makes you sick will rapidly multiply. Your best bet is to buy seafood fresh from a trusted purveyor and eat it right away.
Ultimately, the nutritional value of seafood outweighs the risk. But then I don't eat crabs or oysters or shad roe because seafood is good for me, particularly. It's more like the attraction you might have for the brooding bad boy in the leather jacket. You're not exactly sure how it's going to turn out, but you can't resist the allure.