NEW BEDFORD — Renee and Melinda Brown love to fish and entertain as much as they can in the warmer months. And the mother-daughter pair, visiting New Bedford from Boston, knew they could catch enough fish on a mid-summer day at Fort Taber to supply cookouts for weeks. 

“The scup here is bigger than the ones they have at Stop & Shop, and it comes from the same water,” Melinda Brown said. Wearing red-tinged braids, she reclined in a camping chair on the Fort Taber dock, an eye on her pole. Next to her, a soft-shell cooler twitched, filled with fresh catch. 

The Browns said they took a break from fishing in New Bedford for a while, when the water quality was bad and “it smelled.” But they started coming back a few years ago when conditions improved. Now they cast their lines out here roughly once per year. 

“The water here seems cleaner here now than it does in Boston,” Renee Brown said. 

Yet what the Browns cannot see is that the fish they are catching in New Bedford’s  harbor are likely contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These carcinogenic “forever chemicals” have persisted within the harbor and its wildlife for decades, the consequence of a history of industrial pollution in the nation’s most lucrative fishing port. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning these pollutants out of the harbor for roughly 40 years. It started an extensive dredging campaign in 2004 to remove the PCBs from its sediment. While dredging was largely completed in 2020, and the agency expects to complete the rest of its work by 2025, EPA models project most fish will not meet acceptable risk levels for consumption for another 10-plus years. 

The EPA regularly issues a fish advisory warning the public about consuming fish from the New Bedford Harbor, based on a 1979 Massachusetts regulation restricting the harvesting of PCB-contaminated fish and shellfish from the area. The EPA has also posted signs announcing its advisory — last updated in 2010 — around the harbor. It started a multilingual outreach coordinator campaign in 2015.

Fish caught in New Bedford’s  harbor are likely contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These carcinogenic “forever chemicals” have persisted within the harbor and its wildlife for decades. Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

The agency’s data suggest these efforts are generating a positive effect. Yet its contractors on the project say worn-out signage, a tight budget, and complications from the COVID-19 pandemic have muted its impacts. Community organizers say their own fish advisory campaigns stalled pre-pandemic due to challenges with engaging recreational fishers. 

“We’ve done our best, and tried to reach out to people in a lot of different ways,” said Karen Vilandry from the Hands Across the River Coalition, a local watchdog group for the New Bedford Harbor cleanup. “It seems people are not concerned enough to not fish in contaminated areas.” 

With a post-pandemic dip in messaging and a growing migrant community in New Bedford, locals are calling for increased resources and efforts to educate people on the fish advisory. 

“We absolutely need new involvement and resources (for the fish advisory),” Vilandry said. “Because of the influx of people, there could be those that have recently moved in that have not been contacted.” 

“There could be more and better information out there,” said Corinn Williams of the Community Economic Development Center, which runs the EPA outreach coordinator program. “It’s not necessarily top-of-mind.” 

Melinda Brown said that she did not see any EPA signage related to PCBs on her way out to the Fort Taber dock. She doubted the seriousness of the fish advisory because authorities weren’t doing enough to inform people. 

“Most people believe it’s safe, because it’s not shut down,” she said. “They really need to make it clear and say, ‘this fish is not good.’” 

The risk

Low-level human exposures to PCBs have been linked to immune system dysfunction, liver disease, and thyroid disease. The chemicals have also been compared in academic studies to dioxin, a potent cancer-causing pollutant.  

So Keri Hornbuckle of the University of Iowa Superfund Research Program thinks people should never eat fish from the New Bedford Harbor. 

“There should be a major effort to prevent that from happening,” said Hornbuckle, who oversees research on the persistence of PCBs in the natural environment nationwide, including the New Bedford Harbor.

PCBs, also known as aroclors, are a group of 209 chemicals that were manufactured by chemical giant Monsanto from 1929 to 1977. The compounds were used in industrial products such as electrical transformers. The EPA outlawed them in 1979, following studies linking exposures to cancer and birth defects in animals.

Humans are exposed to PCBs through breathing in water vapor near hazardous cleanup sites, skin contact with contaminated soil, and consuming fish that live in PCB-contaminated water. 

Local manufacturers Aerovox and Cornell Dubilier built electrical components containing PCBs from 1940 through the late 1970s, and dumped significant amounts of the chemicals into the New Bedford Harbor. This pollution led the EPA to declare the harbor a Superfund site in 1982. 

The strong chemical bonds in PCB molecules, which made them desirable for industrial uses, also make them resistant to degrading in the environment. PCBs also build up in the fatty tissues of organisms at all levels of the marine food chain, Hornbuckle added, in a process called bioaccumulation. Some PCBs can later break down into smaller concentrations in fish. But, as the phrase “forever chemicals” implies, some PCBs may never fully go away during a fish’s lifespan, and may even persist in the environment after the fish die.  

Graphic: Kellen Riell / The New Bedford Light. Photos: Britannica, NOAA, Adobe Stock, Unsplash

“There’s organisms in the sediment: worms and other living things that fish eat,” Hornbuckle said. “The fish eat some organism that has it, and then they’re eaten by a bigger thing, and that’s eaten by a bigger thing. So, the load of PCBs you get when you eat contaminated fish is much higher than you get when you breathe them over a whole lifetime.”

David Carpenter, a University at Albany public health physician who has served as a witness in PCB-related litigation, added that he is alarmed by recent studies connecting PCB consumption to ADHD and permanently reduced IQ in children. He added that while on average, PCBs have half-lives of 10 years, some have half-lives of days to weeks, while others stretch as long as 50 years. 

Still, he noted, there is no large-scale data showing that consuming large concentrations of PCBs alone can lead to serious health problems, and the chemicals can likely be found in “every living person on the face of the earth.”

“I’m not saying this is the most dangerous thing in the whole world,” Carpenter explained. “But there’s no beneficial effect of any exposure and clearly, more is worse.”

Dave Dickerson, longtime EPA remedial project manager at the New Bedford Harbor Superfund site, says that even after the EPA cleans up the harbor, it’ll be 10 years or more until the fish are safe to eat. 

“It’s not like you clean up all this contamination, and ‘boom,’ automatically the seafood is free of all PCBs,” he said. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says seafood is safe to eat if it contains less than 2 parts per million of PCBs. Yet the EPA applies a more stringent standard of no greater than 0.02 parts per million of PCBs to the New Bedford Harbor, based on “patterns of local seafood consumption.” 

Only some black sea bass, quahogs, and tautog deep in the outer harbor meet the EPA’s criteria for safe consumption, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s most recent PCB concentration sampling in New Bedford Harbor fish for the EPA. Bluefish and blue crab in the inner harbor do not meet either FDA or EPA standards. Neither do eel in the inner or outer harbor.

Dickerson said the EPA is “trying to be reasonable” when it comes to people consuming fish from the harbor. The agency permits one meal per month of black sea bass and shellfish from Area 2, which extends from the outer bounds of the New Bedford hurricane barrier to the edge of Ricketson’s Point in Dartmouth and Sconticut Neck in Fairhaven. 

Yet he added that the data does not show a clean decline in PCB concentrations within the harbor’s fish, and the agency is being cautious about changing the advisory. 

“We have to make sure we don’t claim victory until the data is clear,” he said. 

The EPA’s fish advisory is organized into three closure areas. It forbids the harvesting of any shellfish, lobster, or finfish in Area 1, covering the inner harbor from the mouth of the Acushnet River to the inner boundary of the hurricane barrier.

The advisory also recommends against consumption of any lobster and groundfish, such as scup and tautog, in Area 2. 

Only lobstering is restricted in Area 3, which stretches from Wilbur’s Point in Fairhaven and Rocky Point on West Island to Ricketson’s Point and Mishaum Point in Dartmouth.

Outreach efforts 

Ken Rapoza, a former New Bedford restaurateur, takes no pleasure in telling local fishermen that they shouldn’t eat fish from the harbor. 

“This is some peoples’ culture,” he said, gripping a clipboard on a July afternoon at the Gifford Street boat ramp. 

But Rapoza said he likes to help people. And talking to people about why they shouldn’t eat fish from the harbor helps community members lead healthy lives, he said. That’s why he’s one of four members of the Community Economic Development Center’s fish advisory outreach team.

After an influx of Central American immigrants to New Bedford in the mid-2000s, the EPA partnered with the CEDC to spread the word to them about PCBs in fish. 

The part-time outreach coordinators talk to recreational fishermen at 18 EPA-designated hotspots between late May and October. They distribute EPA flyers on PCBs and collect data on residents’ fish consumption habits.

Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

While Rapoza only speaks English, his colleague Hilda Souza speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Genaro Mendez, another coordinator, speaks English, Spanish, and K’iche’, a Mayan language commonly spoken by Central American immigrants. 

Dickerson said the EPA has posted 83 signs around the harbor area informing people of the dangers of PCBs in fish from the New Bedford Harbor, including a few outdoor billboards near Fort Rodman and the New Bedford hurricane barrier. 

Reaching fishermen can be hit-or-miss. Still, Mendez, Rapoza and Souza all said that awareness of PCBs in the fish is growing among the fishermen they talk to. 

EPA numbers also suggest the outreach program is making a difference.  A New Bedford Light analysis of the agency’s data found that only 25% of fishermen surveyed along New Bedford Harbor in 2022 were eating their catch (rather than just releasing the fish). That’s down from roughly 80% who ate the fish in 2017. Concern over PCBs among harbor fishermen has grown, from 9% in 2017 to 22% in 2022. 

However, inconsistent data across the outreach campaign makes year-to-year comparison difficult. The CEDC surveyed 125 people in 2021 and 453 in 2022, but the EPA only recorded 30 surveys during those years. 

A reporter from the Light recently spoke to 15 fishermen on the harbor and found that nine of them knew of PCB contamination of fish in the harbor. Four had encountered outreach coordinators from the CEDC. But nine of the 15 fishermen told the Light that even with knowledge of PCBs in the harbor’s fish, if they caught one that met the minimum size requirements for a “keeper” on their fishing license, they would take it home and eat it. 

Genaro Mendez, left, and Ken Rapoza are tasked with talking to recreational fishermen at 18 EPA-designated hotspots between late May and October. They distribute EPA flyers on PCBs and collect data on residents’ fish consumption habits. Credit: Adam Goldstein / The New Bedford Light

Souza says awareness of the fish advisory has died down since the pandemic, especially in Spanish-speaking and Cape Verdean communities. She estimated that roughly 70% of the 50 people she spoke with during Fourth of July weekend did not know about PCB contamination in the harbor, nor did they see signage with the fish advisory.  

Rapoza added that the organization slowed outreach activity during the pandemic to protect vulnerable employees, and a low pay schedule is limiting the ability of the CEDC to recruit and keep outreach coordinators. All of the CEDC outreach coordinators also have full-time jobs. They got a raise this year from $15 an hour to $18 per hour. 

Rapoza said he thinks the EPA should put out more, newer, and bigger signage. Agency maps show many sections of the harbor are going unmarked, including Union Wharf, Sconticut Neck, and West Island, along with parts of Fort Rodman, Acushnet and Clark’s Cove. 

At the Gifford Street boat ramp, Rapoza pointed to a small sign under a plexiglass stand, with ink so faint that the outlines of harbor closure sections had blurred. 

“They’re all faded,” the outreach coordinator said. “You see what I mean when I say we need better signs?” 

Conveying the risk of PCBs to skeptical fishermen is also a challenge for the coordinators, who lack health communications training. 

“They just don’t want to pay attention,” Mendez said. “They just keep fishing.” 

“Some people say, ‘my grandma has been eating this fish for 40 years and she’s 90,’” Rapoza said. “What can you say to that?”

Enforcement and improvement 

Yanaira Adriano was watching her children play on the rocks at the Fairhaven hurricane barrier on a July day as her husband Jaime fished for scup. She said in Spanish that if the PCB contamination in the fish were as harmful as government officials say it is, they would shut down fishing access.  

Lucas, a 23-year-old fisherman who did not give his full name, agreed. On a separate mid-summer day at the New Bedford hurricane barrier, he asked why, if the fish were harmful, he didn’t get any information about that when he received his fishing license. 

Stopping people from fishing in the harbor is easier said than done. 

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries allows fishing in the harbor for those who have a statewide saltwater recreational fishing permit. These permits cost $10 for those under age 60. 

The marine fisheries division doesn’t warn fishermen about PCBs in New Bedford Harbor. It only issues statewide permits and restrictions, and it doesn’t list other agencies’ warnings or restrictions on its website. 

Dickerson, the EPA manager, said the agency does not arrest or stop people from consuming fish in the harbor. The EPA’s warnings are just advisories, not a ban. A 1979 Massachusetts Department of Health regulation bans the harvesting and sale of fish and shellfish from certain sections of the harbor. But Dickerson has never heard of that ban being enforced against recreational fishermen. 

Graphic: Kellen Riell, Environmental Protection Agency. Map: OpenStreetsMap, Datawrapper

As written, the 1979 ban applies to everyone. But a Massachusetts Department of Health spokesperson said the agency does not regulate recreational fishermen; it enforces the regulation only through its inspections of wholesale seafood dealers. The department also issues regular fish advisories, which echo the EPA’s consumption guidelines. 

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Environmental Police do not enforce state health rules such as the fish consumption ban, a police official said. The environmental police only work to uphold Division of Marine Fisheries regulations, such as a prohibition on shellfishing and lobster harvesting in New Bedford’s harbor between sunset and sunrise. Violations of those regulations are felonies. 

Given a lack of legal options to restrict consuming catch from the harbor, health authorities say the EPA should expand its outreach program.  

The program’s budget, funded by the EPA, is just under $10,000 annually, which Hornbuckle deems “not sufficient.” She contrasts that with the $858 million that the EPA has spent dredging and cleaning the harbor since 2004. “Why would they not spend some significant fraction [of that] informing people of how they should behave regarding the remaining risk?” 

Hornbuckle suggested the EPA spend closer to $100,000 per year on fish advisory outreach efforts, and hire skilled health communications professionals to help run the program. The suggestion resonated with Williams of the Community Economic Development Center, who said that with more money, her organization could also hire more coordinators and create a more expansive program. 

Others suggested more targeted messaging. 

Madeleine Scammell, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said she has seen “creative” health campaigns executed for less than $10,000. She said the EPA could work with local health care providers on fish advisory outreach, to reach children and women of childbearing age, two populations vulnerable to the harms of PCB consumption. 

Vilandry, of Hands Across the River, said more education in schools and religious communities could help reach reluctant members of the community. Williams added that other organizations and agencies could also get involved in spreading word of the fish advisory.

The EPA has recently ordered and received new health advisory signs, and it will place them as new locations are scouted, according to Dickerson. He added that he sees the outreach efforts as “sufficient,” and that they will continue for the foreseeable future. 

“It’s one of those issues where there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “We are trying to do that. As long as we have that outreach happening, we feel good about it.” 

Editor’s note: This story was amended on Aug. 25, 2023, after the EPA corrected information that it had provided to The Light regarding the number of outreach surveys conducted and recorded in 2021 and 2022.

Adam Goldstein is a Report for America corps member. Email him at