BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Every summer afternoon, dozens of anglers line up along the Niagara River. They include many immigrants from Southeast Asia who fish not for sport but for sustenance, stowing their trout, salmon and pike into white buckets to be taken home, then curried or deep fried.
But these new immigrants, some of whom were lured to Buffalo from Myanmar and other countries in recent years to help the Rust Belt city rebuild its shrinking population, know little of the area's industrial past and legacy of toxins that could be harmful to their health.
Health officials warn of effects ranging from memory loss to cancer. Getting word out about the dangers in their native language is the goal of an outreach campaign by the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper group that seeks to strike a balance between culture and safety.
"We don't tell them, 'Don't eat fish.' We tell them the better way to eat fish," said Ba Zan Lin, the group's 26-year-old outreach coordinator, whose family resettled from Myanmar when he was 18.
On a recent afternoon on Squaw Island off Buffalo's west side, Lin stepped along the river's rocky shore, chatting up fishermen in their native Myanmar and offering printed guides advising how much fish is safe to eat and how best to prepare it, and describing the dangers to children and pregnant women.
New York state's official fish consumption warnings about possible fish contamination from PCBs, lead and mercury are easily lost on immigrants who have resettled in the region by the hundreds and, in many cases, are still learning English.
Riverkeeper's outreach, which began about 2 ½ years ago with a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, includes going to popular fishing spots and distributing pamphlets printed in Spanish, Nepali, French, Myanmar, low-literacy English or just pictures.
"We'd like to share this approach and methodology throughout the Great Lakes because there are a lot of other cities similar to Buffalo and Niagara Falls that have similar problems," said Jill Jedlicka, executive director at Riverkeeper. "We want to start communicating that on a much broader scale."
The U.S. government resettled more than 58,000 refugees in the United States in 2012, from Myanmar, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere, U.S. State Department statistics show, including an estimated 1,000 in Buffalo.
With its population growing ever smaller, the city has rolled out a welcome mat for refugees with the hope they will breathe new life into neighborhoods struggling with vacant housing and a lack of businesses. Four resettlement agencies to help with housing and red tape have made the city a prime choice for new arrivals.
Ka Mar, who arrived five years ago, was fishing from the large rocks sloping toward the river when Lin stepped gingerly down and asked if he might talk to him. He sat and eased into the conversation with small talk about the weather, gaining Mar's trust. Not all the anglers have fishing licenses, Lin said, and may view him with suspicion.
Speaking Myanmar, Lin told Mar that the smaller fish are safer to eat because they've absorbed less pollution and that he should cut the toxin-retaining fat from the larger fish, rather than eat it.
"I've been eating the fish five years and nothing happened," Mar would tell Lin in Myanmar. It is a typical response until anglers learn the toxins can build over time.
"He thinks it's safe. He says it tastes good," Lin said as he moved on, hoping his message had gotten through.