In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway noted, “Travel writers wrote about the men fishing in the Seine as though they were crazy and never caught anything; but it was serious and productive fishing.” Whether that was a professional opinion or literary flourish is difficult to say. After all, he’s talking about a body of water enshrined in legend for its filth, stink, and pollution — the product of Paris’ infamous sewer system — during the 1920s, when munitions were probably still floating around from WWI. Supposing anyone caught a fish there, who would have eaten it?
Similarly, anyone who walks or cycles along the East River during sunny weather has seen people fishing there, but few actually know what they do with their catches. Intrigued, I headed for Stuyvesant Cove, the area near Con Edison’s water purification plant at East 14th St. There, three fishing rods were propped over the railings into the water, while their owners stood a few feet away chatting, looking at the women jogging by, and otherwise passing time. They had all fished in this spot for years, through all types of weather and on all occasions, but this was the first time they were approached to speak about their hobby with a journalist.
First question: Do they keep what they catch? “I’m a catch-and-release man,” replies Sgt. Efrain Diaz, a veteran who returned from Iraq in 2005. When I ask if he knows anyone who actually eats the fish, all three of the fishermen shoot me an incredulous look that says, “Of course!” “I know a guy that’s been eating the fish out of here almost 20 years, and there ain’t nothing wrong with him,” answers Jesse Ruiz, who sports a tear-drop tattoo below his left eye. The least talkative of them, Fred Doumbe, a tall African-American man, chimes in that he eats them himself and is fine.
They offer a number of theories why the water is clean and the fish are healthy. For one, most of the fish are migratory, and do not stay in the East River — which is actually a tidal strait connecting Upper New York Bay to the Long Island Sound, rather than its own body of water. “They come from Canada and Connecticut,” Jesse points out, “They know that the food’s here, so they come looking for it, but they don’t stay here.” He goes further, saying that the water is clean because a friend who works for an unspecified environmental organization told him that they process the water in a nearby plant. In the springtime, he claims, one can see as far as five feet deep. He even swims in the water when the weather is warm enough.
Is it wishful thinking? The purification plant he’s referring to is close to the spot where they are standing. If you look at the shore near 14th Street, you will find steam rising from the water that’s being boiled and disinfected. And never doubt a fisherman’s wisdom about the waters he frequents. According to Kate Zidar, who runs a free fishing clinic at the Lower East Side Ecology Center, she gets even more of her information about river conditions from the fishermen than from marine biologists, river advocates, and other experts. Since the anglers are there every day, they have far more data.
Still, it’s a stretch to say that the river is pure. New York still uses a combined sewer system found in old European cities and older Northeastern metropolises. During heavy storms, the rainwater mixes with sewage dumped out of CSO (combined sewer overflow) outlets throughout the five boroughs. This practice has caused the city to be found in repeated violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which has led federal courts to pass two (ignored) consent decrees mandating a solution. Proposals are currently being made to address the problem, but in the meantime, each rainfall dumps a new batch of debris into the surrounding water. Zidar once asked a fisherman standing next to one of these outlets if he knew what it was. He responded, “Yeah, fish food!”
Safety considerations also depend on a number of factors, from the age and gender of the person to the type of fish and how you cook it. Zidar usually abstains from East River fish because she’s a woman of childbearing age, but she says, “Honestly, if I ever caught a young bluefish on a clear summer day, I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t try it once.” The biggest health risks are caused by mercury and PCBs, which young women and children are more susceptible to, but pose some risk to all. One can minimize exposure to these chemicals by filleting the fish, which takes away more of the toxins than cooking it in a stew.
In any event, none of this would keep the men that I approached from their favorite pastime. “The only reason I don’t eat the fish is because I’m not a seafood lover,“ says Diaz, “I only keep what I’m going to give away, if it’s legal.” People interested in fishing in the East River need to do more than just bring a rod, bait, and tackle. They need to learn regulations because keeping an illegal fish is punishable by a summons, and the rule is enforced. “They’re never going to get me because I go by the regulations.”
Sgt. Diaz asks if I would like to see some pictures, and he takes out digital prints from his time in Iraq. He shuffles through some of soldiers taking turns dressing up as mujahideen — “just messing around,” he explains — until he reaches one of him fishing in Saddam Hussein’s private lake. The dictator sent people around the world to find exotic specimens for him to catch. “Saddam would be spinning in his grave if he saw this,” he says, pointing to a picture of himself in uniform, holding a rod in one hand, a colorful catch in the other, and a machine gun around his neck. The time of this interview was one day after the hanging.
Even so, the picture of the striped bass that Sgt. Diaz caught in the East River makes his catch from Iraq look like a guppy. It measures in at 47” — spanning his torso down to his knees — and weighs almost 31 lbs. That qualified as the largest fish anyone in the group caught that year. “This guy [Jessie] is always trying to beat me. He’s been trying to do it for a couple of years now,” Efrain teases. “I gave him a chance. I went to Iraq for a year and a half. [He] still couldn’t do it.” Jesse’s personal record so far is 38”, an impressive feat, nonetheless.
The day after I leave will be the beginning of a new year, and the start of a new competition. “We’ll see what happens,” says Efrain. “I’m gonna beat you this year,” taunts Jesse, and Efrain jabs back, “Fat chance.”