A Schuylkill river fish tale

Who hasn’t seen the Falls Bridge fishermen and winced at the thought of eating fish out of the Schuylkill? Are they even edible? Are they radioactive or full of PCBs or BPAs or WMDs or something…??

What’s even down there?

It’s almost a Philadelphia birthright to look into the murky waters of the Schuylkill river and imagine all sorts of auto parts, rubber boots, and petroleum products clinging to the ooze of the river bed. It’s a mindset that’s hard to shake and one that’s fully justified given our city’s long history with polluted water.

A Toxic River

In the late 1800s, it was no secret that Schuylkill water could kill you. Like other riverside mill towns, the wealthier and middle-class residents of East Falls lived as far as possible above the river, to escape the “miasma” from refuse that meandered downhill in open sidewalk gutters, wooden pipes, streams, and sometimes over open ground toward the river.

According to a city commissioner’s report from 1877, one of East Falls’ streams, Saw Mill Run, “carried all the drainage from the factories, slaughterhouses, and houses in the vicinity and Nicetown” into the Schuylkill. “At the mouth of this sewer,” the report continued, “all were obliged to hold their noses closed on account of the foulness arising from the place. It would be hard to conceive of a filthier spot.

This kind of reckless dumping into the river obviously led to widespread illness, including outbreaks of typhoid fever. Increased public pressure fueled debates in city government for a cleaner river and safer drinking water. After years of debate, the city finally acted, building five filtration plants in the early 1900s.

It was only a partial victory— while the filtering certainly helped clean up the drinking water by the time it came out of city taps, there was no corresponding effort to stop dumping sewage, pollutants and industrial waste into the river in the first place.

Lots of fish died, but not just from poor water quality. Even if a fish could tough out the toxins, he’d eventually come up against an insurmountable obstacle, literally: those damned dams!

With the river blocked, the white catfish of “catfish and waffles” fame practically disappeared, along with many other “anadromous” species  — migratory shad, catfish, eels, etc. who live most of their lives in the ocean, ascending only to spawn in freshwater rivers and streams. The damming of the Schuylkill in the 1820s that was so helpful for opening up new routes for East Falls commerce and industry, unfortunately did so at the expense of upstream spawning patterns for fish.

Decades would pass before the city acted to improve the quality of the river — and we didn’t even try to tackle the migratory fish problem until 1979, when the Fairmount Dam “Fishway” was built.  The creation of the EPA and passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s also led to ever-stricter standards for discharges from municipal sewage works (monitored closely by the Philadelphia Water Department).

What’s a “Fishway?”

Basically, it’s a “fish ladder” that helps migratory species move upstream to spawn — it’s like a row of steps at the surface of the water that mimics the shallow, stony tributaries these river fish are genetically coded to navigate.

And the Fishway works! In 2006, 26 species of fish were observed moving upstream through the Fishway. And an otter, too!

The Philadelphia Water Department improved the Fishway in 2009 to allow even more access for river species, leading to larger fish and a greater diversity — by latest report, an estimated FIFTY DIFFERENT FISH SPECIES have been seen or caught in the Schuylkill River since clean-up efforts have begun. There are even triathalons where the athletes SWIM in it!

Progress, for sure! But here’s hoping those East Falls fishermen stick with catch and release a little while longer. This is Philadelphia, after all.



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