Oil spill raises more questions about Mahoning River

With the recent oil spill on the Mahoning River, discussions have resurfaced regarding the quality and overall safety of the river. Of course, this has always been the reputation of the northeast Ohio tributary.

For years, we’ve all heard the complaints and warnings that there are no fish in the river to catch, and, the ones that are there are toxic. Simply put, these two assumptions are not true. However, this reputation is not without reason.

For decades, lack of regulation allowed local area businesses to dump toxic waste materials into the river, heavily polluting its waters. The pollutants contaminated the river to near uninhabitable conditions. Eating the surviving fish from the river was highly discouraged.

As environmental concerns became more mainstream, the illegal dumping dwindled, allowing the water to recover. One very popular sport fish, smallmouth bass, are evidence that the Mahoning waters have made a turn for the better.

Smallmouth bass is a fish species that requires a stable and healthy water source. Unlike carp and catfish, which can survive in less than pristine conditions, it is one of the least hearty freshwater fish species that will not thrive, if survive at all, if the water quality is not ideal. The fact that smallmouth bass are doing well in the river is a promising sign that the water quality has improved. A friend and I fished a two-mile stretch near Newton Falls last weekend and hooked into over a dozen smallmouth.

Catching an abundant number of quality fish from the river displays sufficient water quality, but that does not mean the river is now free of contaminants.

The pollutants are trapped in the sediment along the bottom of the river. The water is relatively clean because the river is always in constant motion. However, there are still portions of the bottom that hold a significant amount of pollutants that can be potentially harmful if consumed. This is where the “eating Mahoning River fish will kill you” rumors come into the conversation.

The Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water released the “Ohio Sport Fish Consumption Advisory” in February of this year, outlining its suggestions for sport fish consumption. Overall, it recommends consuming “panfish” (such as perch, bluegill, etc.) no more than twice a week, other non-mentioned fish no more than once per week and larger catfish and pike no more than once per month. These concerns are due to potential mercury, PAH, and PCB contamination.

The report later has separate suggestions for the Mahoning River. It recommends not eating any catfish over 21 inches or smallmouth bass over 15 inches. These fish have had more exposure to these contaminants, making them more of a threat.

Although there are certain suggested limitations for eating certain fish, the Mahoning River still holds an abundance of fish waiting to be caught and a large variety of fish that are healthy to eat on a relatively regular basis.