Today, all eyes are on the upper Hudson River, where General Electric will begin dredging toxic PCB contamination from the mud from a 40-mile stretch of river between its factories in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, and the federal dam at Troy.
GE's pollution, discharged from capacitor-manufacturing plants for about 30 years before the Clean Water Act and a federal ban on the use of PCBs brought the direct pollution to an end in 1977. That was also the year that state officials shut down commercial fishing on the Hudson River, because PCBs had worked their way into the tissues of virtually ever species caught and sold along a 200 mile stretch from Manhattan on up.
In the 32 years since then, the Hudson River has been declared a Superfund site -- all 200 miles from Fort Edward to New York Harbor. The Environmental Protection Agency, after long study, determined that dredging contaminated mud from the upper Hudson River, while New York worked with GE to shut off leaks from the bedrock beneath its Hudson Falls plant, was the best strategy for reducing contamination downriver. Until the last few years, GE did everything in its power -- from a media blitz to lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Superfund law to lobbying in Washington D.C. -- to avoid this very expensive cleanup. Meantime, PCBs continued to flow over the Troy dam and downriver, and fish continued to retain contamination enough to make most species unfit for regular consumption, and most species unfit for commercial sale.
PCBs was not the only factor in the decline of the Hudson River fishing industry, but it was a major factor. Estuaries are among the most biologically rich habitats on Earth, and the Hudson River is an estuary with unique characteristics -- a mix of freshwater and salt water connected to the sea that ranges in depth from a couple feet through the Tappan Zee to a couple hundred at World's End near the military academy at West Point. More than 200 species of fish have been documented in the Hudson, several of which have been important commercial fish in generations past -- American shad most notably, but also blue crabs, sturgeon (dubbed "Albany beef") striped bass, eel, herring and others.
PCBs gave Hudson River fish a major black eye. Who wants to eat something the federal government says might give you cancer, stunt the growth of your children or otherwise poison your body -- locally caught or not? But the Hudson has been abused in many other ways. There are other sources of toxic pollution, including PCBs, other than GE. The river's shallows have been carved out for shipping channels, or filled in at the edges for factories and railroad tracks. Its tributaries, in many cases, have been dammed, reducing spawning habitat and limiting the flow of nutrients. Power plants kill millions of fish eggs and larvae each year as they suck in cooling water. For decades before the Clean Water Act changed the paradigm, sewage choked vast stretches of water. Invasive species -- most notably zebra mussels and water chestnut -- have fundamentally altered the ecosystem of the river, to the detriment of many native fish. And fishermen themselves have been responsible for decimating their livelihood; shad helped feed soldiers during World War II, but the vast quantities of fish taken from the Hudson left the population at a fraction of what it once was. More recently, huge factory-scale boats in the Atlantic have decimated the recovering population of shad and herring by catching fish attempting to enter the river to spawn.
Shad and blue crab are the only commercial species remaining on the Hudson River -- both relatively free of PCB contamination and safe enough for a meal or two during the short seasons when fishermen can catch them. Herring, too, are caught and sold for bait -- primarily to the anglers trying to catch striped bass.
All of this left fishermen with less and less reason to fish, and less and less profit in their catch. The Hudson River fishery was always humble -- made up of one- and two-man rowboats or a family that owned a handful of boats and employed a handful of workers. They drifted nets with the tide upriver, or in the Tappan Zee, staked the nets right into the shallows. Whereas dozens or hundreds of these boats once pulled fish from the length of the river, fewer than a dozen -- maybe as few as a half dozen -- now fish the Hudson.
Which brings me to Bobby Gabrielson Sr. He was one of the last.
At 79, Bobby Gabrielson died this week, and his funeral is today -- the same day GE's dredges start their work nearly 200 miles upstream from his home and dock in Nyack, during the 400th anniversary year of Henry Hudson's voyage up the river that now bears his name.
In recent years, Gabrielson has left the fishing to his son, Bobby Jr., and his contemporary, Ian Raywid. Most of his business is bait, with a little shad and blue crab on the side. (Really his business has always been blacktopping; as has usually been the case with Hudson River fishermen, fishing is only a seasonal occupation, not a full time job.) But when I met him, or interviewed him by phone, he was always barking orders at his son via radio -- engaged fully, you might say, in the family business. His wake Thursday -- one of two wakes and two funeral services, each of which is likely to be attended by hundreds of people -- was filled with fishing memorabilia, press clippings and photos of his life as a family man and fisherman.
He helped to start the organization that became Riverkeeper, and he continued to serve on that organization's board. (Riverkeeper helped clean up many other sources of pollution on the Hudson, and spawned the Waterkeeper Alliance, which has helped countless other citizens clean up pollution on local waterways across the U.S.) It was his nets that alerted biologists to a startling decline in Atlantic sturgeon that prompted a ban on commercial fishing in the mid-1990s. He's been a part of virtually every environmental issue affecting the river for decades.
Shad have been so hard to come by on the Hudson this year (the state has imposed new regulations in an attempt to restore the population from its lowest recorded levels) that the few remaining fishermen can't fill orders; restaurants and fish markets have turned to the Chesapeake or other sources in many cases. Ian told me they didn't bother netting shad this spring, except to catch Bobby Gabrielson one last meal of shad roe. He lasted just through the shad season, while in Hospice care at his home in Nyack.
There's some poetic justice in that -- knowing Bobby Gabrielson, who fished his whole life, had one last meal of shad before he died, and enjoyed one last fishing season on the Hudson.
The poetic injustice is that his funeral falls on the day that GE's dredges start their work. The injustice is that more than 30 years lapsed between the time GE's pollution was noted for the harm it has caused and the time the cleanup has begun. Those 30 years saw the livelihoods of many fishermen disappear, and it saw many fishermen disappear. It saw the taste for local fish disappear. It saw a part of regional culture damaged, possibly forever.
Like I said before, PCBs were hardly the only cause for commercial fishing's decline. One can't help but imagine, though, how things might have been different if the PCB black eye was removed in 1979 or 1989 or 1999 instead of 2009.
It's a bright day for the Hudson. Even longtime environmental advocates are being quoted widely praising GE for putting together a first-class engineering system to remove contamination in a way that meets strict EPA standards. But it's a day to mourn, too, for Bobby Gabrielson and for the generations that have lived without being able to fully appreciate the bounty and beauty of the majestic Hudson River.
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