Can you eat fish that you catch in Houston bayous and rivers?

Many anglers know if you catch a fish in one of Houston’s plentiful bayous, the right thing to do is to release it back into the water.

Technically, the answer is yes — it’s not illegal to fish and eat from Houston’s bayous.

State health officials wouldn’t recommend it, though.

“Some people heed the advice and others don’t,” said Kirk Wiles of DSHS’s seafood and aquatic life branch. “That’s just the nature of society.”

So what’s the risk?

Many bayous in the area, including Buffalo Bayou, are part of the Houston Ship Channel, where DSHS has found water containing potentially unsafe levels of pollutants.

In 2015, DSHS issued an advisory against eating fish and crabs from the Houston Ship Channel and Upper Galveston Bay after finding unacceptable levels of PCBs, pesticides and other contaminants in the water.

Once used commercially as coolants in electrical equipment, PCBs can negatively impact a person’s immune system and vital organs, according to a 2005 FAQ by the Seafood and Aquatic Life Group.

The risk is even greater for expectant mothers. Eating large amounts of fish that contain PCBs can cause infants to have delayed physical development and learning difficulties, the FAQ states.

That said, if someone has been eating the contaminated fish all their life, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re guaranteed to have adverse health effects.

“We try to present the information so that consumers can make an informed decision about whether they want to take the risk of eating the fish or feeding them to your family,” Wiles said.

To eat or not to eat

When deciding whether to take the risk of chowing down on a possibly-contaminated fish, there are a few factors to consider.

First, you’ll want to think about where you caught the fish.

DSHS has an interactive Texas Fish Consumption Advisory Viewer that anyone can review. Unfortunately, not all bodies of water have advisories and many waterways haven’t even been tested, Wiles said.

“It’s a common misconception that somebody goes out and checks every body of water and fish around Texas and that’s not the case,” he said.

DSHS doesn’t have a routine fish monitoring program and is only able to sample bodies of water when given external funding through grants. “So there’s a lot of areas even in Houston with bodies of water that have never been sampled,” Wiles said.

While pollutant levels can fall when an area is cleaned up, Wiles says “the Houston Ship Channel is an area that has a long history of contamination, and that contamination ultimately ends up in fish that don’t change much over time.”

SILENT SPILLS: Read our 2018 investigation on the toxic legacy of Hurricane Harvey

The size, age and type of fish also matters should also factor into your decision.

Larger, older fish will generally contain higher levels of PCBs than smaller, younger fish. Fatty fish like carp, gar and catfish may also contain higher levels of PCBs than lean fish like largemouth bass, walleye and crappies.

Because of the potential health impacts, DSHS advises children and women of childbearing age entirely avoid eating fish and crabs from Houston’s bayous.

As for adult men and women past childbearing age, DSHS recommends only consuming eight ounces of fish a month, at most.

So if you absolutely must take a bite out of your latest catch from the bayou, do so sparingly.

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