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The Truth About Those New Jersey “Sewer Fish”

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Recent flooding in Newark, New Jersey led to some unusual headlines around the Web this June. For instance, Gawker went with the funny, if hyperbolic headline, “Freedom Hating Health ‘Experts’ Warn New Jersey Not to Eat Sewer Fish.” NJ.com went with the less amusing but more honest headline, “Newark warns residents not to eat fish that washed ashore during flooding.”

After storms caused several Newark lakes and ponds to overflow at the end of May, videos spread showing unfortunate fish trying to swim upstream on streets and trapped in storm drains. At least one resident caught a pair of so-called “sewer fish” and returned them to a nearby pond. So the internet did what the internet does best: it overreacted. Soon, outlets were reporting that Newark residents were feasting on trapped sewer fish; local health officials were even forced to respond.

“This is a dangerous practice and residents are urged to refrain from trapping, catching, and eating any fish caught on the streets,” said Department of Health and Community Wellness Director Dr. Hanaa Hamdi to local news teams.

So far, Hamdi said she hasn’t received any reports of residents actually eating the trapped sewer fish, but she still warned them to err on the side of caution.

“We don’t have any certainty what the danger is, but it is a dangerous practice,” Hamdi said in an interview.

Plumbers with special drain inspection cameras sometimes turn up animals like raccoons trapped in sewers and storm drains during camera drain inspections or trenchless sewer repair. If animal control or residents report distressed wildlife, plumbers or city workers will perform a camera drain inspection to safely determine the source of the noise. And of course, all sewer pipe repair workers know the urban legend about wild alligators.

But rarely do residents take matters into their own hands and pluck fish or other animals right out of the gutters. In Newark, one unfortunate man attempting to rescue trapped fish had his picture featured prominently in countless new stories about the “sewer fish,” thought fortunately for him, his face was obscured.

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