Among those who fish the polluted Duwamish, a divide between haves and have-nots

 

We pull off the highway into a gritty-looking industrial park less than 100 yards from the road and snap our rods together. It's just a few steps down the banks to this Seattle river where we can see the silver bellies of the pink salmon flipping in the current, slinging themselves upstream. We tie lures that the fish are supposed to like -- neon-pink, humpy death jigs -- to the ends of our lines and cast off into the river.

Every other year, in odd ones like this one, salmon swim home to spawn, thereby setting off a rush of urban fishermen like me casting for fish on the banks of the Duwamish River, which weaves through the industrial south side of Seattle. But we're not the only ones.

The Duwamish River is a fishing grounds and major food source for locals, most of whom live in a low-income community close by. They eat out of the river for food all the time, not just when the salmon are running. Now that I'm here, I feel like I'm cutting in on their turf.

After decades of heavy industry, the Duwamish is laden with toxins. The lower five miles were declared a Superfund site in 2001, and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a cleanup plan in 2013. The plan, however, is expensive and flawed, and it hasn't stopped people from eating the seafood they catch in the river, despite the fact that some species, such as Dungeness crab, can have 20 times the state's acceptable level of toxins like PCB.

But not the salmon, coming in from the ocean. Upstream, the pinks will turn ragged and humpback, shedding their muscles as they fight home, but here, just inland from the sound, they're shiny and thick, and — so my fishing partner tells me — good eating, despite the PCBs, mercury, arsenic and lead coursing though the river.

After a few casts with no luck, we cross a narrow bridge to angle for an eddy on the other side, and as we do, we can look down at two 30-something fishermen casting right next to each other in the shadow of the bridge. One wears waders and has a thick watch glinting on his reeling hand. The other, who looks Southeast Asian, is wearing a tank top and rolled sweat pants, toes gripped into the muddy banks. I don't know either of them, or their stories, but it's hard not to make assumptions.

The river slits through some of the poorest parts of the city, and it's a major source of food for immigrant populations who have settled in its watershed, and for tribal groups who have always eaten from the river. They fish there all the time, not just when the salmon are running, and eat the crabs and rockfish that are loaded with heavy metals, but are always there to be caught.

Even before the EPA made its declaration about toxins in the water, there were huge public health campaigns to try to spread the word about the dangers of Duwamish fish. It proved to be hard to communicate because of things like language barriers, lack of other food sources, and because the river doesn't look particularly polluted.

Salmon runs make things even more loaded and complicated. The pinks, which are just passing through, don't absorb the toxins in the same way, so they're fine to eat. But that's when people who don't depend on the Duwamish start showing up to pull salmon out of the river, crowding the banks, angling only for the healthy fish.

You can tell people fish here a lot. There is line tangled in the brambles on the shore, and a scattering of cigarette butts and broken hooks along the gravel bar. But the longer I stay, the more I feel like an interloper. Visitors like me come from other neighborhoods where only healthy fish swim. We cook them without much fear, knowing that we can avoid the unsafe fish. In Seattle, which is one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the country, it feels like a clear split between the haves and have-nots.

Today we don't end up catching much. When we leave, picking our way back up the trash-strewn banks, the guys under the bridge are still standing there, slinging their lines out into the current, watching fish rise.

Heather Hansman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. She is a Seattle-based freelance writer and a former editor at Powder and Skiing magazines.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Communications Associate to support the advancement of GYC's mission by working closely with the Communications Coordinator and program staff...
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...