Like many of the 1,500 immigrants in Buffalo, Kyaw Soe regularly fishes the Niagara River for food. That’s what he and many other immigrants from Burma did back home.
But what Soe and the others did not know is that the fish he catches here for his family to eat are likely tainted with toxins.
This summer, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization, is spearheading an extensive campaign to educate Buffalo’s growing immigrant population on the dangers of eating fish caught in polluted waters.
“They eat fish without knowing the complicated and long industrial history of the Buffalo Niagara region,” said Nicole Lipp, communications manager for Riverkeeper, which is dedicated to protecting and restoring area waterways. “We began this outreach when we learned that many refugees who came to Western New York practiced subsistence fishing.”
Ba Zan Lin coordinates Environmental Justice, the name given to the community outreach program. On a daily basis, he and others from Riverkeeper visit area fishing holes like Broderick Park, Squaw Island and the foot of Hamburg Street on the Buffalo River to talk with immigrants who fish. Lin, who turned 26 Sunday, spent his first 18 years in Burma and is fluent in several Burmese dialects.
“A lot of Burmese who come here see a waterway, and it looks clean,” Lin said. “They assume the waters and the fish in them are clean even though they are not. That’s how I became aware of the issues.”
Much of Western New York’s abundant water supply – Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the Niagara and Buffalo rivers – contains fish with potentially harmful levels of chemical contaminants, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which routinely monitors contaminant levels in fish, and the state Department of Health, which issues advisories on eating sport fish.
“PCBs are not being used anymore, but their residues are very persistent even though the cleanup is ongoing,” said Anthony Forti, a research scientist in the Health Department. “If you look hard enough, a lot of food will have low levels of PCBs. There is a cancer risk associated with long-term exposure to these chemicals. To help people control their exposure to these chemicals, we give detailed advice.”
There are precautions that should be taken to safely consume fish caught in area waters, according to Health Department advisories. Properly cleaning and cooking fish help reduce the risk of chemical contamination. Avoiding fatty fish and limiting portion size and frequency of consumption also help reduce the health risk.
Riverkeeper has published fliers in five languages – English, Burmese, Nepali, French and Spanish – that detail these fish advisories. Pocket-sized handbooks in English and Burmese contain info-graphics designed for those with low literacy skills to help fishermen identify safe catch. “A People’s Guide to Eating Fish Caught in Western New York” is a 65-page book that identifies the species of fish found in local waterways, including Hoyt Lake, Cayuga Creek, Erie Canal, Tonawanda Creek, Lewiston Power Reservoir and Eighteenmile Creek in Niagara County. It defines fish with higher concentrations of toxins, such as chinook salmon, lake trout and white perch that build up more chemical pollution in their bodies because they are fattier. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye – which sport fishermen regularly catch and eat – should also be avoided or eaten less often because they are predators, according to Riverkeeper. Higher on the food chain, these fish tend to carry more mercury, according to the manual, which can also be viewed at www.eatfishwny.org.
“We’re trying to make it so you don’t even need to read. You just look. The information is very visual,” said Kerri Li, director of citizen action programs for Riverkeeper. Li said funding for the publications was provided by Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration initiative.
The state Health Department advisories don’t go nearly as far as Riverkeeper’s, except for women of child-bearing age and children under 15. For most adults eating fish from most local waters, the state advises limiting meals to between one and four per month, depending on the species and where it was caught. “Immigrants’ connection to the water is a real strong connection,” said Anna Ireland, director of development for Jericho Road Ministries, a service organization that eases the transition for new immigrants. “As soon as I knew how many fishermen were down at the river and that they were fishing, I knew I had to get involved. The effects from eating contaminated fish are long term, and that confuses them.”
The fish advisory project began in 2009 with a survey to discover what people were eating in areas along the Buffalo and Niagara rivers. That is where much of Buffalo’s immigrant population – from Burma, Nepal, Puerto Rico, Bhutan, Iraq and eastern Africa – has settled.
“During recent years, about 1,500 refugees have been resettled to Buffalo,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. “A good proportion are from Burma, but they’re also from Bhutan and Iraq. There are about 500 secondary immigrants coming to Buffalo from other parts of our country. Those are almost all Burmese.”
To date, Riverkeeper has interviewed 170 people, Li said.
Danny Estrada moved here from Puerto Rico more than a decade ago. Estrada lives on Ontario Street and fishes at Broderick Park at the foot of West Ferry Street. He is familiar with New York State fish advisories and limits his fish consumption to twice a month. Estrada prefers white bass and white perch because those species do not live here full time.
“They travel here from northern waters to spawn,” Estrada explained. “There is less chance of contamination. I love fish, but I need to know what I eat.”
A mobile messaging campaign called “Catch of the Day” directs anglers like Estrada to text COD (Catch of the Day) to 877-877, which then directs them to online information about local fish consumption advisories and healthier ways to eat local fish. They are also encouraging anglers to snap a photo of their catch and send it electronically to the GROW 716 website, a community journalism project.
The effort to educate the local immigrant population about healthy fish consumption involved a handful of local service groups. In addition to Riverkeeper and Jericho Road Ministries, collaborators included Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo and Buffalo United Front, which distributed 400 rods and reels to families during its Family Fishing Days that drew 3,500 people to fish the upper Niagara.
“This program is not unique to Buffalo,” Li said. “In Detroit, Milwaukee – all along the Great Lakes – programs have been put in place. We hope ours becomes a model. If anything, this shows the desire of this community to have safe fish to eat.”