Fishing for Environmental Justice in the Northeast Cape Fear River

Above: The Cape Fear River Basin. Image: “Capefearrivermap” by Kmusser, CCA 3.0.

By Gina Daniel, MEM Assistant, Research Translation Core, Duke Superfund Research Center


Fishing is a common pastime in North Carolina, and while most fish are safe to eat, some fish are contaminated with dangerous compounds such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Consumption of these contaminated fish can lead to negative health effects. Fish contamination varies between bodies of water and by fish species, with some species being more capable of bio-accumulation than others. For these reasons, fish consumption advisories are different for different areas. The variability in levels of contamination in fish by location/area shows the importance of effective localized, community-based communication strategies for fish consumption advisories.



In 2016, the Research Translation Core (RTC) of the Duke Superfund Research Center became a partner in a consortium of community-based groups conducting a research study supported by an EPA Environmental Justice grant entitled, “Identifying populations at risk: Fish consumption on the Northeast Cape Fear River.”  The RTC has taken on the role of academic partner and project co-coordinator in this project, partnering with Cape Fear River Watch, Wake Forest School of Medicine, New Hanover County Department of Health, Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and the New Hanover County NAACP and other members of the Southeast North Carolina Environmental Justice Coalition. The goals of the project are to determine if people consuming fish caught from the Northeast Cape Fear River are being exposed to potentially harmful levels of chemicals in fish, and to educate communities about the risks associated with fish consumption in the area using lay health educators from within these communities.


The Northeast Cape Fear River is classified as an “impaired” waterway due to high levels of mercury in tissue samples of collected fish (EPA 2016).  This impaired status indicates a potential risk for subsistence fishers and their families. A recent study in the Haw River Basin, located at the headwaters of the Cape Fear River Basin, by Johnston et al. (2016) showed that knowledge of fish advisories was severely lacking amongst recreational fishers in the area (Johnston et al. 2016). Focusing on “empowering, culturally-specific, and appropriate language and techniques, including train-the-trainer sessions” (EPA 2016), the consortium will determine effective ways to engage and provide education opportunities to communities about how to make safer fish consumption choices.


Speckled Trout. Illustration courtesy of Duane Raver.


The RTC’s work on this project aligns with the Duke Superfund Center’s goal of effective research translation and community engagement. The RTC is committed to working with and learning from communities across North Carolina to help facilitate the bi-directional transfer of scientific skills and knowledge between researchers and the general public. The project also incorporates research findings from the labs of Duke Superfund Center investigators like Dr. Helen Hsu-Kim (Project 4), who studies the impact of mercury on fish and aquatic systems, and members of the Di Giulio lab, who study the impacts of toxins like PCBs and PAHs on fish health.


Members of the RTC have facilitated monthly calls since November, 2016 with the consortium of partners, met individually with community leaders at Cape Fear River Watch, and met with the data collectors hired to implement the community survey. Data collection is likely to begin in spring or summer of 2017. Moving forward, the RTC will continue to provide relevant scientific information and research translation to the communities and stakeholders involved. Finally, we will help craft educational resources and train data collectors to become lay health educators on this issue in their own neighborhoods.


Other universities in the Research Triangle are also working toward effective communication of safe fish consumption practices to communities. The UNC-Chapel Hill Superfund Research Program’s Research Translation Core has a community project aimed at educating fishermen about fish consumption advisories, and North Carolina State University has recently developed a new website that offers a variety of helpful resources on fish consumption including an interactive map to visualize where it is safe to consume certain fish in different regions of the state.


You can find the resources that the RTC has gathered so far for the study’s survey participants at the following link: “Should I Eat the Fish I Catch?


Stay tuned for updates on our fish consumption work in 2017! For questions, contact Project Coordinator Catherine Kastleman at