BY TOM HESTER SR.
About those blue claw crabs found in Newark Bay and the Lower Passaic River: don’t eat those things, they could kill you.
Scientists have found the crabs continue to show harmful levels of cancer-causing dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as other contaminants, including mercury.
The region in question is a highly industrialized urban area that includes the bay, the Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull, and the tidal portions of the Hackensack, Passaic, Elizabeth, and Rahway rivers.
The state Department of Environmental Protection on Monday reminded residents that harvesting blue claw crabs from the bay and Lower Passaic is prohibited. A multi-language education effort is underway this week, to remind residents about the negative health effects of crabbing in those waters.
DEP enforcement officers and community and environmental organizations have monitored waters in the region this spring and found that many of the warning signs regarding the dangers of crabbing have been torn down and that some residents continue to fish for blue claw crabs.
"We strongly urge people not to eat crabs pulled from those waters, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said. “This is a matter of public health and safety for people who live in neighborhoods in that region. Until the water quality issues are resolved, we are asking people to observe the ban on crabbing in that area. There are plenty of other places in clean waters for good, healthy fishing and crabbing in New Jersey.''
Contaminants found in blue claw crabs and some fish pulled from Newark Bay and the Lower Passaic can be especially harmful to fetuses and infants, so women of child-bearing years, pregnant women and nursing mothers should not eat the crabs. Children also are at risk of developmental and neurological problems if exposed to these chemicals.
"There is no way to prepare crabs from these waters to make them safe for consumption,'' Acting state Department of Health and Senior Services Commissioner Dr. Tina Tan said.
The blue claw crab is a bottom dweller and feeder that has grown in size and increased in abundance in the bay and Lower Passaic in recent years because the area is closed to commercial crabbing. That increased size and abundance has made the blue claw crabs even more attractive to some crabbers, who ignore the ban on crabbing and consumption, which has been in effect since the mid-1980s.
"Some people don't want to believe there is a problem,'' Gary Buchanan, DEP Office of Science manager, said. "Because these crabs look really healthy, many people may not truly comprehend the problem and, as a result, ignore our warnings. But those crabs are not healthy and should not be eaten.''
To inform residents of risks of eating the blue claw crabs, the DEP is working with the Department of Health and officials in 44 cities and towns and 6 counties -- Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Union and Passaic -- affected by this issue.
A long-term outreach and education effort being conducted by the DHSS Seafood and Shellfish Project has distributed nearly 200,000 copies of a brochure in English and Spanish that warns of the effects of dioxins on children.
In 2005, the DEP and state Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit against the companies responsible for the intentional discharge of dioxins into the Lower Passaic. At that time, dioxin concentrations in Passaic River crabs and fish were among the highest in the world. That lawsuit is still pending in Superior Court.
Additionally, the DEP is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on plans for a cleanup of an eight-mile stretch of the Lower Passaic.In a separate action, responsible parties are preparing to remove about 40,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated sediments in a portion of the Lower Passaic River. The work is scheduled to begin this summer.
Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director, said what he sees as a 20-year delay by officials and polluters to clean up the waterways is part of the problem.
“After years of legal battles, finally work is starting to get done which is too little to late but at least it is starting,” Tittel said. “The New Jersey Sierra Club is glad that finally a cleanup for part of the river has started, which has been long overdue and desperately needed to be done. We hope this is the beginning to an accelerated Passaic River and Newark Bay clean up."
The removal and disposal of dioxin-contaminated sediment will take place in the area of the Passaic located next to the Diamond Alkali Superfund Site. The Diamond Alkali plant manufactured pesticides, weed killers, and Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
The process of making Agent Orange called for large quantities of dioxin. Dioxin is one of the most deadly substances known to man that bio accumulates in people and is known to be the most carcinogenic.
Tittel said dioxin is an extremely harmful substance not only to humans, but to the ecosystem as well. He said the dioxin in the Passaic and bay has caused fish advisories in New Jersey all the way to Florida and Maine.
“What was something that was used during the Vietnam War is still affecting our health and our environment today,” Tittel said. “This clean up has to happen, but it is just the first part because a lot more needs to be done.”
Persons who violate the crabbing ban in the Lower Passaic and bay are subject to fines ranging from $300 to $3,000 for a first offense.
For more information on the ban, including Spanish and Portuguese language information, click here.
For a full listing of marine fish advisories for Newark Bay and the Lower Passaic, click here.
To see a list of fish consumption advisories in New Jersey, click here.
For the DHHS link to its Seafood and Shellfish Project, click here.