On a sunny day at the 125th Street Pier in Harlem, fishermen typically line the Hudson. Equipped with their reels and their radios, these urban anglers while away the hours in the shadow of the West Side Highway.
They are novices, veterans, men, and women all united by a common purpose: to fight the tides, the trash, and occasionally the fish for that one elusive strike.
Like many of the regulars here, Mark Wilson has been fishing at 125th Street since he was a young boy. He learned the sport from his father 50 years ago, and with each passing year he grows ever more committed to the fish and the fishermen of the Upper West Side.
"You build up a sense of community out here, you see," he said. "People come out once a week, every spring, every summer, every fall. You get to know the faces." He motioned toward the Department of Sanitation Center to the north and the highway behind him. "Some might say the location could be better, but for these guys here, there's nothing like it."
Down the pier, two men who introduced themselves as "The Governor" and "The Senator" work intently over their rods. One of them fastens bunker, a type of bait fish, to his hook, while the other fixes a piece of clam. When they've finished, they cast their lines into the Hudson, turn up the Otis Redding, and recline in their chairs.
"Pretty much everyone out here has a nickname," The Senator said as he cracked open a beer. "There's Buster who caught a 20-pound Sturgeon a few years back, The Governor here, Caddy, who never has a damn penny in his pocket so we make him carry our stuff. If a fish takes your bait, we call that fishing on credit. And if you pull in a blue fish, we call that singing the blues."
"You can fish elsewhere," The Governor added, "but there's nowhere quite like this."
Surprisingly, Manhattan is full of makeshift fishing holes like the one The Governor, The Senator, and Mark Wilson call home. The 79th Street boat basin, Sty Cove, and the marina at Battery Park are just a few of the many hotspots that dot the Hudson and the East River.
The rivers themselves have much to do with the popularity of the sport in the city. Despite the debris on their surfaces, the estuaries are teeming with a mixture of oceanic and river-dwelling aquatic life below. Striped bass, blue fish, perch, blue crabs, eels, false albacore, herring, and sturgeon all call New York City's waterways home.
At 1 p.m. at 125th Street, the tide begins to swing back toward the sea. The waves grow choppy against the pier and a stream of wood, plastic cups, and paper plates float by.
"This is what makes me mean," The Senator said. "If I made the rules, none of this would be here. There wouldn't be no filth in the water, and the fish would be healthier too. You can't eat a damn thing you catch out here. They're bloated like guinea pigs."
When asked if he ever eats the fish he catches, The Governor is just as adamant.
"Hell no," he said. "You eat this shit, you go home, turn off the lights, and you glow."
All hyperbole aside, most fish in the Hudson are dangerous to eat due to a high level of toxins in their fatty tissues known as polychlorinated-biphenels; PCBs for short. Although they don't make you glow in the dark, PCBs do lead to heightened risks of cancer and to serious defects in offspring including growth deficiencies, thyroid problems, and even mental retardation.
"PCBs are particularly prevalent in striped bass because they spend the first five years of their life in the Hudson," said Chris Stamm, Director of the Hudson River Fisherman's Association. "They spawn and grow near the Hudson Falls Site, collecting the toxins all the while. Only after they reach a size of 25 to 26 inches will they start out of the estuary into the Atlantic."
The Hudson Falls Site that Stamm referred to is the primary source of the problem. Here, north of Albany, two General Electric plants discharged over one million pounds of PCB-laden chemicals into the river from 1946 to 1977. To make matters worse, transistor oils with PCBs seeped through the floors of the factories into the bedrock below so that even now, nearly 30 years after the dumping has ceased, three ounces of chemicals still flow into the Hudson each day. One pound of PCBs is enough to infect 500,000 pounds of fish.
"Unfortunately, in the middle of the century the government was telling companies like us that dumping into rivers was the preferable way to dispose of our chemicals," Mark Behan, a spokesman for General Electric, said. "Once their advice changed, GE went along with it."
After two decades of challenging remediation efforts in court, General Electric is finally working in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of New York to mitigate the presence of PCBs in the river. They have invested $250 million into a tunnel project that will suck the remaining chemicals from the bedrock (underway currently) and a dredging plan that will remove most of the PCB-enriched sediments from the floor of the Hudson beginning next year.
"Our goal is for the current source of PCBs [the bedrock] to be eliminated before we do the dredging," David Kluesner, the Hudson River Community Involvement Coordinator for the EPA, said. "Then we can remove sediments from the 40 hotspots that we've identified in the Upper Hudson."
For many, like Chris Stamm, the efforts are coming too late. He confided that in a Mount Sinai medical test performed within the last few years, members of his organization who eat the fish they catch showed levels of PCBs considerably higher than the national average. The same test revealed that homeless in the city who rely upon the Hudson for food test dangerously high for levels of the carcinogen. From the fish to the otters, beavers, eagles, raccoons, and humans that pray upon them, PCBs work their way through every link in the food chain.
Back at 125th Street, the fish are beginning to bite. The Senator has pulled in two striped bass in the past half hour and The Governor has reeled in a pair of blue fish.
"Now just you watch," The Governor says. "If we leave these fish out here long enough, you can bet someone'll come along and take 'em for dinner."
The Senator and Caddy nod their heads.
"Damn, man," the Senator finishes, "people gotta eat somehow."