The Crab Project: A Matter of Life or Death
By Kathy Urffer
Hackensack Riverkeeper, working with five local community groups and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), helped educate thousands of people this year about the extreme danger of eating blue claw crabs from the Newark Bay Complex that are contaminated with harmful levels of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
As a state-recognized watershed organization, Hackensack Riverkeeper was chosen by NJDEP in 2002 to disburse grant awards totaling $60,000 to the five community groups to facilitate education about state-mandated fish and crab advisories in the region.
The five community groups partnering in The Crab Project are Elizabeth Presbyterian Center in Elizabeth, Future City, Inc. in Elizabeth, Immigration & American Citizenship Organization (IACO) in Passaic, Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark and Jewish Renaissance Medical Center in Perth Amboy.
In June, representatives from each of the five groups boarded HRI’s pontoon cruiser “Edward Abbey” to tour of the Newark Bay Complex to further their understanding of where crabbers are accessing the waterways. Also in attendance was a researcher from Mt. Sinai Hospital who has been working on a study to assess levels of PCBs and dioxins in anglers.
On November 14, 2003, Hackensack Riverkeeper organized an end-of-the-year summit at the Robbins Reef Yacht Club in Bayonne to discuss the successes of the groups’ outreach efforts. “The groups are the most effective means of getting this critical information to the people who need it most,” said NJDEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who was the keynote speaker at the summit. Each of the groups in attendances made presentations about their outreach efforts and the outcomes:
Andrew Arboleda of the Immigration & American Citizenship Organization (IACO) said his organization published four articles about the crab advisories in its bimonthly newsletter, La Guia Del Inmigrante, reaching 10,000 readers. Over the past year, IACO has shown the Spanish version of NJDEP’s Fish Consumption Advisory video in the waiting room of its Passaic office.
Michelle Garcia, executive director of Newark’s Ironbound Community Corporation, explained how more than 1,700 people were reached last year by her organization. From after-school programs to “Toxic Tours” to one-on-one encounters, ICC volunteers and staff educated people in English, Spanish and Portuguese along the banks of the Passaic River.
Troy Hudson of the Elizabeth Presbyterian Center in Elizabeth targeted children and expectant mothers through its “Fishing Safely” program. “The most important thing to me is to get the message across to little kids and to pregnant women,” said Mr. Hudson. “They are the ones who are most in danger from this toxic legacy.”
Michelle Doran McBean, CEO of Future City, Inc. in Elizabeth, unveiled a large tabletop display that detailed her organization’s work over the past year to reach those most at risk from the contamination. She also explained how Future City linked the Crab Project with a program designed to warn people about the dangers of lead contamination in drinking water.
Kerry Kirk-Pflugh, manager of Outreach and Education for the NJDEP’s Division of Watershed Management, reported on the NJDEP’s crab toxin studies as well as the results from two community interceptor surveys that prompted the agency’s decision to fund this grant.
Hackensack Riverkeeper publicized the crab advisories at its eco-programs, river clean-ups, canoe field station, RiverFilms series, all school presentations and during the Urban Fishing Program.
“Each of the recipients did a tremendous job and reached literally thousands of people but there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Captain Bill. “The best news of the day is that the DEP is committed to another round of Crab Project grants for 2004.”
Blue Claw Crabs: Deadly Dinners
One day not so long ago, Kathy Urffer, Hackensack Riverkeeper’s operations director, watched a couple of crabbers hoist a tub full of blue claw crabs from their boat at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus. The crabbers no doubt were looking forward to a seafood feast when they got home to their families. Blue claw crabs were good eating. Or so they thought.
Begrudgingly dutiful, Kathy approached the men and explained why they cannot, under any circumstances, take those crabs home and eat them. A ban on the consumption of fish and crabs is in place to protect public health. Besides risking a fine of up to $3,000 for the first offense (NJAC 7:25-14, 18A), the crabbers were risking much, much more.
According to New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) site studies, the risk of cancer from dioxin is so high for blue claw crabs found in the Newark Bay Complex that even one crab eaten about every 20 years would breach the acceptable level of risk. The magnitude of these risks is one of the highest encountered by the NJDEP in any context.
Studies reveal that fishermen routinely ignore warnings, continue to catch fish and crabs, and feed them to their families. Those most at risk to health dangers are pregnant and nursing mothers, unborn children, and children under the age of 15. Minorities and economically disadvantaged people, the research found, are those most likely to eat dioxin-laden seafood. The Crab Project, funded by the NJDEP and administered by Hackensack Riverkeeper, was designed specifically to publicize the advisories to these populations.
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