After testing the fish for PCBs and mercury, the Ohio EPA has deemed most fish in the Cuyahoga River safe to eat.
The fish consumption advisory was updated this March to recommend that people can safely eat fish from the river as often as once per week.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are man-made chemicals that were used in industrial applications. These chemicals got into the river during improper waste disposal and dumping from industries in Cleveland and Akron. They were also sprayed on roads to keep dust down. Studies later found that exposure to PCBs can cause liver and respiratory problems, skin lesions, and possibly increase the risk of cancer. PCBs were banned in 1979.
To be clear, the river was never off-limits in a legal capacity. The Ohio EPA doesn’t have authority to create any law or limit fish consumption. People could always fish in the Cuyahoga River if they desired.
“There really wasn’t a place where you couldn’t fish. There were probably places where people didn’t because it was disgusting. There’s no legislation that restricts or permits consumption of fish. It’s all what they call recommendations,” says Curtis Wagner, the Fisheries Management Supervisor of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. “It was a quite restrictive advisory from the lower part of the Cuyahoga, the industrial part.”
The advisory Curtis speaks of is the Ohio EPA’s fish consumption advisory. Previously, the state agencies recommended that people did not consume most of the fish from the lower 46.5 miles of the Cuyahoga River more than once a month.
“Almost all of the pollution in the Cuyahoga was point-source, meaning a company dumping something out,” Wagner says. The area had also been degraded due to toxic substances entering the water from municipal and industrial dumping, hazardous waste disposal, stormwater runoff, sewer overflow and runoff from farms.
All these waste products took a toll on the river, especially downstream of Akron.
Today, the Ohio EPA still has a recommendation to limit certain fish consumption, which is mostly due to naturally occuring toxins in the fish like mercury. The Ohio EPA suggests eating rock bass no more than twice a week. People should not eat channel catfish or common carp more than once a month. Restrictions are also broken down depending on where the fish are caught, from the Ohio Edison Dam Pool to the mouth of the river at Lake Erie.
Anglers should also be aware of the pass-through fish that come from the lake like perch or walleye who like to hang out by the breakwall. Then there are the species that head upstream to try to spawn during the winter months like steelhead.
“You have a lot of pass-through fish in the [river] that really aren’t spending much time in the harbor-industrialized [part of] the river. They are punching through. They really aren’t exposed to that pollution when talking about consumption,” Wagner says.
The agencies made the advisory determination after sampling different species of fish from the river. During sampling, staff from the Department of Natural Resources capture fish of similar size and filet them like an angler would. They package the filets and send them off to the lab to be tested by the EPA, which looks at pollutant levels in parts per million or parts per billion. The Department of Health then compares standards of pollutants a healthy adult can accept and compares it to the levels in the fish.
They set conservative limits and thresholds so that the recommendations are safe, even if people go a little over the guidelines.
The Ohio EPA has been working to improve the Cuyahoga River since the agency was created in 1972. The Soil and Water Conservation Districts in counties along the river have educated landowners on erosion. Individual municipalities have sought grants to improve sewer infrastructure.
Some of the challenges fish in the river still face — especially from Gorge Dam down — are tumors and habitat loss. Fish like to spawn upriver, but dams block the travel of many fish. Luckily, government agencies are working to get rid of these in the coming years, including the Gorge Dam.
“Steelhead in particular are hardwired to swim upstream. Gorge [Dam] is like the hard barrier. There’s an ecological barrier, too. The pooled up water from the dam itself is a pretty low-water-quality site. It’s got warm water. It slows down. It’s lower on oxygen. That pooled up water acts as a pool or a lake and the fish don’t like the water quality,” Wagner says.
“Anytime you take out a dam, you improve a river’s health,” he adds. “The keepers of the river hope that in 15 or 20 years from now this conversation is that the Cuyahoga is un-damned. That would have a huge impact on the water quality down through the national park.”
Another growing issue — as seen in Lake Erie already — is algae growth from excessive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from farm runoff and excessive fertilizer. This algae can grow quickly using the oxygen in the water. The fish underneath can literally suffocate because there is not enough air for them to breathe through their gills. When the algae dies, toxic bacteria eat its remnants, which can also kill the fish. If the bloom grows too completely, it can blot out the sun and stop underwater plants from photosynthesizing, causing trouble for those fish that feed on the plant life.
Restoration progress is slow, but that is to be expected. It takes only a second to break a bone, but weeks to heal it. Scale that up to an ecosystem. What took only years to contaminate will take decades, if not centuries, to fully restore.
Other Cuyahoga creatures
Besides fish, there are hundreds of species that call the Cuyahoga River their home. From invertebrates to vertebrates, from the microscopic to the massive, their numbers are growing as the health of the river increases.
There are the usual suspects: Mallards and Canadian geese, white-tailed deer and squirrels, a plethora of toads and frogs. But hikers and animal enthusiasts may be able to spot many more species.
Birds and their nests:
Green and Great Blue Heron
Reptiles and Amphibians
Northern Water Snake
Slider and Box Turtles
Eastern Redbacked Salamander
Common Five-lined Skink
North American River Otters
Eastern Red Bat
Little Brown Bat
Big Brown Bat
Doug Dawes has been volunteering for Summit MetroParks since 1993. He posts many of his animal sighting photos to iNaturalist, a website and citizen science project that maps biodiversity. His best tips for capturing photos are “to use the biggest lens you can afford and keep moving. You might miss something on the trail in one direction, but find it coming back in the opposite direction. Keep your eyes in scanning mode at all times.”
Remember to never approach wildlife. Stay on trails and keep a safe distance. Wild animals act on instinct and it is important to be respectful, especially during mating or nesting seasons.
Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.