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Stateside Podcast: Detroit Riverwalkers promote healthy fishing habits

An eagle's eye view of the Detroit River
Zaire Daniels
Planet Detroit
An angler and his catch on the Detroit River.

It’s no question that fishing is a revered summer pastime of many Michiganders, and this season has been no exception. The Detroit River is a favorite spot for many anglers, but the high level of pollutants in the water poses a big health concern for those who consume their catch. In response, a group called the Riverwalkers has established a strong presence on the Detroit River to help combat this issue and educate anglers on safe fishing practices.

The program is a partnership between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Wayne State University, with the main goal of educating anglers about the pollutants that exist in popularly caught fish in the Detroit River. The Riverwalkers are mostly community members with a passion for fishing and educating others about fishing. Educator and freelance journalist Zaire Daniels wrote an articlefor Planet Detroit about the Riverwalkers' safe fishing initiative. Currently, there are over 21 locations along the Detroit River where Riverwalkers are stationed to talk with local fishers.

“In 2020, the program reached about 1,300 different anglers or fishers in those 21 locations on the Detroit River. And 73% of them had been eating the fish that they caught, and they weren't too sure about the safety,” said Daniels.

Along with the education initiative run by state and local health officials, Wayne State University students and faculty play a large role in testing fish that are caught in the Detroit River to determine the types and levels of toxins that are present in different fish.

“The main pollutants are mercury and PCBs," said Daniels. "And, you know, the industrial legacy of Detroit is really to blame for that."

“A lot of the runoff from the pollutants is getting into the water, which is contaminating it,” he said.

Although several fish are affected by the pollutants in the Detroit River, catfish appear to be among the most affected due to their nature as bottom-feeders. Because pollutants have a tendency to sink and settle on the bottom of the river, catfish feeding on organisms close to the river’s floor then stir up and ingest pollutants that go directly into their bloodstream. This poses a threat to all who ingest catfish from the Detroit River, but Daniels said that cultural factors put certain demographic groups more at risk than others.

“Most of the people that are on the shore are people of color. So with Black folks, with African Americans, you know, catfish is a huge cultural food. So they are getting exposed to far more pollutants than some of the smaller fish, some of the other fish that are in the water along with them,” said Daniels.

Although catfish are popular, Daniels noted that there are several smaller fish that contain fewer pollutants, such as walleye, bluegill, and silver bass. Focusing on smaller fish is just one part of an acronym known as the “three Cs” that appears in a state brochure to help fishers remember safer practices for catching and preparing fish caught in the Detroit River: choose, clean, and cook.

"So, choose, obviously you want to try and get fish that have less of the pollutants in them from jump street. Then when you’re cleaning away the fat and the skin and the organs, the PCBs and the dioxins are mainly in the fat and the organs of the fish,” said Daniels.

”The last step will be when you go to cook it. You should cook your fish on a grill, or you should broil it on the oven so that the fat can drip away. And remembering to, you know, get rid of that oil that you cook your fish in. So don't reuse that oil,” he said.

By following these practices, people can continue to eat fish from the Detroit River while also limiting the amount of contaminants they ingest, Daniels said.

He said education is imperative for public safety, especially because many people fishing in the Detroit River may be unaware of the pollutants and risks that come along with eating their catch.

Education efforts also include improvements to the signage along the river, which Wayne State University is also working on. Daniels spoke with Donna Kashian, director of Environmental Science at Wayne State, about her work to create more accessible signage.

Some people included in a study "said that the language coming from the Michigan Department of Health in years past, it's been very one-sided; it's been very aggressive," Daniels said. "And some of the people, they’re either disregarding that information or they're not understanding it.”

“So Part of what her group did in conjunction with the Riverwalkers was trying to come up with better language, better images that anyone can pick it up, and they can understand the information,” he said.

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Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.
Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.