On the Willamette River in Portland, consuming fish pose health risks, Multnomah County releases multilingual videos to communicate fish advisory

April 21, 2022

For some, fishing is a form of relaxation. For others, it’s part of a tradition. But right now, for everyone, consuming fish that live their whole lives in the Lower Willamette River – across virtually all of the river’s run through downtown Portland – can put your health at risk because of contaminants found in the mud at the bottom of sections of the river.

Multnomah County’s Environmental Health team, part of the county’s Health Department, has released a fishing advisory video to help guide and protect community members who fish in the Lower Willamette.

Local fishers Yevgeniy Ruban (left) and Dan Yan (right) fishing in the Lower Willamette River.

Multnomah County collaborated with the Human Access Project, the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, and three local fishers from various backgrounds to develop the video advisory. The video is available in English, Chinese and Russian, part of work to deliberately reach and inform specific communities. 

The Lower Willamette River fish advisory area refers to the course of the river from the Sellwood Bridge, and then moving north until it joins the Columbia River. It also includes the Multnomah Channel, beginning at the confluence with the Willamette River to the Sauvie Island Bridge.

In December 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed Portland Harbor, a roughly 10-mile stretch of the Willamette between the Broadway Bridge and the Columbia Slough, as a Superfund site.

Under federal law for Superfund sites, the EPA can establish a long-term response to clean up contamination. Contamination in the Lower Willamette River is a result of the large-scale business expansion and manufacturing that emerged along the river for decades as Portland developed.

This contamination has now settled into the river bed. These contaminants include: 

  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Dioxins/furans
  • Pesticides 

“I can help my community,” said Dan Yan, a fisher who helped film the Chinese-language version of the video.

Dan Yan, a local fisherman, fishing on the East side of the Lower Willamette River.

Yan, who fishes with his father and has a group of friends who also fish, said providing the information in Chinese will allow more people to understand the fish advisory and the health risks that come from consuming contaminated fish.

“We all want to live a longer and healthy life,” said Yan, who said he would be sharing the video amongst his fishing group. 

Other fishers helping to promote the advisory were Dishaun Berry, who has been fishing in Portland for over 20 years, and Yevgeniy Ruban, whose fishing has become a tradition.

Yan, Berry and Ruban are each part of specific communities with strong cultural ties to fishing as recreation but also as a source of food: the Chinese, Black and Slavic communities, respectively. 

Dishaun Berry (center), a local fisherman, has been fishing in Portland for over 20 years.

“It’s people who look like me who actually fish out here and eat the fish,” said Berry.

Berry said it was important to share the life-saving information with his community. He also said it was more effective to have the information come directly from someone who’s already part of the community. 

Yevgeniy Ruban catches and releases fish in the Lower Willamette River on April 19, 2022.

The contaminants found in the Willamette River pose serious long-lasting impacts to the health of people who catch and eat fish from this area. These effects may include: 

  • Lifelong reduced IQ
  • Low birth weight
  • Liver and thyroid dysfunction
  • Suppressed immune system
  • An increased chance for diabetes and heart diseases

“The reason we worry about people eating fish is PCBs can cause developmental problems in kids,” said David Farrer, an Oregon Health Authority toxicologist. 

Beth Appert, a Senior Program Specialist in the County’s Environmental Health Division, said fishers should be particularly mindful of fish like bass, carp, catfish and crappie which spend their whole life span in the Lower Willamette River. 

“They have a higher chance to accumulate contaminants that are at the bottom of the river,” said Appert.

For more information about other fish and shellfish on the advisory and to learn more about fishing in the Lower Willamette River, go to the Health Department’s “Eating Fish from the River” website