At the St. Stephen’s Greenmarket, on East 82nd Street, local shoppers flock to the American Seafood tent to buy locally caught fish. But the city’s freshest catch can be had for free only a few blocks away. Just bring your hook, line and sinker.
“Personally I like organic stuff, so I prefer fresh fish. I don’t eat farmed fish,” said Walid Zowaal, 52, as he gazed out at his fishing line, which stretched out in the waters of the East River just below 100th Street. He is among the few city dwellers who head to the waters surrounding New York City this time of year to try and reel in bluefish, striped bass and perch.
Zawaal lives just a few blocks away on East 102nd Street, but grew up fishing in the Mediterranean Sea in his native Alexandria, Egypt. He moved to New York 20 years ago and took up the pursuit once again. “Some people grow up on the water and it’s a part of them,” he said as he reeled in an empty hook.
In flip-flops, corduroy pants and a polyester fishing vest, Zawaal rolled a cigarette and looked out over the water at Wards Island in the distance. He pondered the potential health risks of eating from New York City’s waterways, which contain unsafe levels of chemicals and other toxins. “I have thought about it, but it’s good,” he said of the fish. “It’s not that bad.”
Because of the contamination, and occasional sewerage dumps into the river waters, the state Department of Health cautions against eating fish from city waters. The DOH says males over 15 can safely eat from one to four meals a month from river waters, bays and kills, depending on the fish. But children under the age of 15 and women under 50 are warned to not consume any fish from the East River or any other body of water surrounding Manhattan.
That didn’t deter the Bronx’s Anairis Marmolejos, 22, from casting into the river on a recent Sunday in search of dinner.
“Look at them jumping. You see them?” Marmolejos said from the pedestrian pathway at East 92nd Street, where she was spending the afternoon with her boyfriend, Juan Jurado, and her 3-year-old son, Alexander, as traffic on the FDR Drive droned on behind them.
When a friend’s father introduced Marmolejos to fishing a few years ago, at Classon Point in the Bronx, she was smitten. She dashed to a local K-Mart to buy a pole of her own and has been fishing ever since. She recently started angling with Jurado, who called it a great way to reduce stress in the busy city: “Sometimes it’s better than getting on Facebook, getting on YouTube.”
The couple want to fish from other city spots too. “I heard the Hudson was even better,” said Jurado.
Marmolejos is aware of the potential health risks of fishing in the city. A few years ago, her ex-husband broke out in a rash all over his body after eating fish from Classon Point. He was put on antibiotics. “I think because of pollution,” she said with a shrug and another cast.
Farther up the promenade, Brandon Torres, 19, waited for a bicyclist to pass before launching a three-pointed treble hook in the water. He was angling for bunkers, an oily fish that is inedible for people, but great to use as bait. The youngest fisherman on the pier, Torres presided over the day’s catch: a pile of 13 bunkers flopping around in the shade.
He has been an avid fisherman since he was 6. He said he has never experienced any health issues. Striped bass is his favorite.
“Striper’s like chicken – it’s like the best meat you could ever eat,” he said. “It’s the freshest fish in New York City.”