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Know the West

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.