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Fish ‘swap’ proposed for Passaic anglers

NEWARK –

The whole proposition sounds fishy to lots of people but the folks dropping the bait are asking for the patience of, well, a fisherman, before recasting.

It surfaced at the Nov. 14 meeting of the Passaic River Community Advisory Group in Newark from representatives of the Cooperating Partners Group, some 70 companies that have accepted financial responsibility for cleaning up contaminants in the river.

So far, the CPF has arranged for the removal of toxic sediment from a fiveacre section of mudflats along the Passaic in Lyndhurst and is now waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a remediation plan for a 13-mile stretch of the Lower Passaic, from Newark Bay to North Arlington.

EPA’s plan is due by early next year but, in the meantime, the CPG has drafted its own cleanup proposal, reportedly aimed at selective “hot spots” along the river instead of a more exhaustive scope which the EPA is said to prefer. According to EPA’s Ray Basso, project manager for the Passaic restoration program, the CPG is proposing to clean 125 acres of the Lower Passaic’s 13 miles, which he characterized as “a much more limited remediation” than the EPA’s proposed “bank-to-bank” cleanup of 650 acres.

As part of targeted cleanup remedy, the CPG has pitched a “fish exchange” program which, said Basso, proposes to provide anglers a fresh, “safe’’ fish for every carp caught from the river. Consuming Passaic River fish is prohibited due to pollutants in the water but to what extent that prohibition is enforced is hard to tell. Given carp’s tendency as a bottom feeder, the species is more likely to ingest its food from the Passaic River’s sediment, which, reportedly, is where toxins like PCBs and dioxin tend to be concentrated. Basso said the CPG’s experts believe that “carp contributes 25% of the human health risk” to those who do eat fish from the Passaic, so the CPG’s theory is that, “if we eliminate carp from the diet, we reduce the human health risk by that percent.”

The CPG figures to get a supply of clean fish from a Newark-based fish farm, Basso said.

“As a [fish exchange] concept, that might make sense,” Basso said. But, he added, “As far as the EPA is concerned, we don’t recognize that as a substitute for remediating the river. … The exchange could be evaluated as a supplement to existing fishing bans but we’d like to consult our Fish & Wildlife Service for any potentially ecological impact.” A likeminded skeptical state Dept. of Environmental Protection, partnering with EPA in oversight of the cleanup project, is having none of the exchange, according to DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.

“We’re not taking it seriously at all,” Hajna said. “Effectively, we see it as a red herring … not an acceptable alternative to full cleanup …. We don’t want to see a scattershot approach to cleaning up a river involving hot spot removal and fish exchanges. We’re looking for a thorough cleanup of one of the most polluted rivers of world. This [exchange] really came out of left field.”

Another stakeholder left high and dry by the exchange plan is Ana Baptista, coleader, with Debbie Mans, of the Citizens Advisory Group. “The way it was presented [by CPG], it didn’t seem well thought out,” Baptista said. Baptista said while the CPG “told us [the exchange] was going to be a $1 million investment, that they’d partner with Rutgers University’s agriculture program and that they planned to set up a fish aqua culture in a former Newark church,” those and other details still seemed vague. As an example, she said, CPG mentioned there’d be four locations on the river where the exchanges would happen but, other than Lyndhurst, didn’t identify the other spot.

Apparently, she said, “there are none in the Newark area,” which, she added, is where a lot of “subsistence fishing” goes on, particularly now with the city’s new riverfront park offering a natural fishing dock.

Additionally, CPG’s remediation plan, as best can now be ascertained, “is proposing hotspot removal,” which, Baptista said, “will be leaving most of the contamination behind, in addition to this fish swap to reduce human exposure. We have a lot of concerns about that. If you were doing [the exchange] as a pilot program, not meant as a primary path, okay, that’s something interesting, but to say you’re going to leave behind a lot of toxic stuff, that’s when people said, ‘Well, wait a second.’ … The best thing to do is clean the river.”

“Staggering. Mind-numbing. A real head-scratcher.” Those were the reactions of Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the national Recreational Fishing Alliance, headquartered in south Jersey, to news of the exchange plan.

“Where is the fish they’re going to exchange coming from?” Hutchinson wondered. “They’re saying a lot more of our seafood is being imported from other countries not having to live up to our standards.”

Still, Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Assocation, is intrigued by the exchange idea. “It’s an extremely interesting concept. The seafood industry in New Jersey certainly has a lot to offer. I would hope [the CPG] would contact us or some of our local ports to be part of the program. The industry is well taken care of and highly regulated.”

CPG spokesman Jonathan Jaffe said that the group’s plan has been mischaracterized, that it’s finalizing contracts with its exchange partners and that more details will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, EPA expects to publish its cleanup plan for the Lower Passaic in January for a “public comment period” of “two to three months,” Basso said. Then, he said, “we will assess, evaluate and address that comment in our final record of decision which should come out somewhere deep in 2014.” If the CPG objects to the plan, “then the ball is in EPA’s court,” Basso said. The agency would consult with the U.S. Justice Department to determine what its next step would be.

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