Ano ang aalalahanin? asks the bulletin about fishing in San Pablo Reservoir. The bulletin’s color scheme evokes a day on the water: white lettering against vivid blue-green. In Tagalog, this means: “What is there to be concerned about?” The answer is meant to be chilling: “Certain types of fish contain high levels of mercury, PCBs, and pesticides. Mercury can have an adverse effect on brain development in unborn children and babies.” The bulletin links those toxins to cancer and warns against eating reservoir-caught bass, carp, and catfish, though it notes that trout and crappie contain low enough contaminant levels to be considered safe.
Issued by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) as a warning to immigrant fishermen who depend on the Bay Area’s waterways for food, the bulletin is also available in English, Spanish, Cambodian, Korean, Chinese, Laotian, Russian, and Vietnamese.
Each version includes the same color-coded warning levels, the same drawing to illustrate proper serving portions (for adults, a bit more than palm-size; for kids, slightly less), and the same image of a shark superimposed by a red circle and slash, accompanied by the words—in every language—“Do not eat.” Along with halibut, a popular catch at the Berkeley Marina, shark and king mackerel consistently register high levels of neurotoxins.
“Bigger fish tend to accumulate more contaminants,” as do long-lived fish and predators, says marine scientist Timothy Fitzgerald of the Environmental Defense Fund. If such species can be unsafe to eat even when they’re caught far out at sea, those caught in densely populated environments such as the Bay Area present what Fitzgerald calls “an interesting dilemma.” Because seafood is high in protein, calcium, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A and D, “we want people to eat more fish,” he says. “But waterways near big cities contain a greater number of contaminants.” Any urban bay, lake or river is a virtual “cocktail of mean and nasties.”
Big American cities are also home to ethnic populations who love seafood and are accustomed to catching what they eat, rather than buying it retail. Many subsistence fisherfolk living in Northern California see no reason to break cultural tradition, especially during an economic downturn when passing up free meals feels like madness.
“Our clients definitely do a lot of fishing,” says Taearun Lopez of San Francisco’s Cambodian Family Services. “They pick up crab and other things. They come in here talking about what they caught.” Like most community organizers, she is well aware of the health risks but also knows that for many people, the lure of free fish is nearly irresistible when types popular among Southeast Asians “are so expensive in the store—like six dollars a pound.” A fish-advisory sign printed in the Cambodian language has been posted in the CFS office for several years now, and Lopez says it has slowly raised awareness. “And, personally, I try to advocate to our clients not to eat too much fish.”
It’s an uphill battle, because seafood plays a key role in Cambodian cuisine. “Last Friday night,” Lopez remembers, “a client invited me to come and eat Cambodian food. I said, ‘Where did you get that fish you’ll eat?’ They said, ‘Oh, my brother caught a big one.’ But I don’t know where they’re fishing. … I said, ‘Ah, no thank you.’”
Such circumstances comprise “a double whammy,” Fitzgerald laments, “because you’re talking about people who are not only catching more fish but eating more fish. And [the message is] not culturally ingrained that the fish you catch might be a danger to yourself or your family, and that certain things”—such as species and locale—“can elevate that risk. It may not be that the fish in their native areas was any less dangerous than it is here, but maybe the testing back there wasn’t as thorough as it is here.”
Or perhaps, their government agencies don’t report the results of those tests as exhaustively as ours do. OEHHA issues advisories in different languages for waterways such as San Francisco Bay, Folsom Lake, the Sacramento River, the San Joaquin River, and the Delta. (The OEHHA’s San Francisco Bay advisory recommends eating bay-caught fish no more than twice a month.) California’s Department of Fish & Game posts multilingual warning signs in areas known to be popular with immigrant recreational anglers.
“We’re trying to help them understand the potential health risks,” says Fish & Game communications officer Harry Morse, “and to understand that we have a completely different set of laws than other countries about what you can and cannot keep. We’ve done extensive postings up and down the rivers and around the bay, trying to cover specific areas where our wardens encounter especially high numbers of new migrants.” Outreach to Chinese speakers, Morse says, has been a major focus lately.
Graphic designer Lauren Wohl-Sanchez, who created fish-advisory brochures and signs in Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other languages for the state’s Environmental Health Investigations Branch, says the process entailed “dozens of iterations.” Bilingual EHIB personnel visited popular Bay Area urban-fishing spots to interview fishermen at work. “They would bring notebooks showing the various options for the graphics,” Wohl-Sanchez says, “such as how the hands were portrayed” in the images
specifying portion size. “The fishermen were asked, ‘What does this mean to you?’
“Any field-testing process is a very useful, eye-opening process,” she says. “And it always yields surprises in terms of people interpreting things in ways we would never expect them to be interpreted.” One example was a diagram intended to indicate the relative degrees of toxicity in fish: low, medium, and high. Many of the respondents believed that the drawing indicated the depths at which various species could be caught.
Other agencies are mounting similar efforts. The California Department of Health Services produces postcards and signs for posting at fishing sites, bearing warnings in thirteen languages. The signs and cards are designated “low-literacy,” using sparse and simple wording in order to reach as many anglers as possible. The San Francisco Estuary Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit founded in 1986 to bridge the gap between research and policy, also provides advisories and educational materials in multiple languages.
Following ancient tradition, Richmond’s Laotian immigrants practice subsistence fishing from local piers—but West Contra Costa County offers an even stronger toxic cocktail than most; the area is riddled with over 350 industrial sites and chemical hazards, according to the Oakland- based Asian Pacific Environmental Network. APEN launched its Laotian Organizing Project fourteen years ago to raise awareness within the community about these risks. But signs and fliers, an APEN bulletin laments, have little effect on immigrant Laotian anglers “since few are literate in their own language or in English.”
This environmental-justice issue festers wherever immigrant populations settle near urban waterways. A comprehensive study conducted recently by the New York State Department of Health yields troubling statistics: Fewer than half of the recreational anglers surveyed along the Hudson River and New York Harbor were aware of fishing bans and health advisories; the level of awareness was lowest among ethnic minorities. The survey also found that the fish most commonly eaten by members of these communities were the most highly contaminated species. Over half of the anglers surveyed reported eating the fish they catch, and most said they shared their catches with children and with women of child-bearing age.
Another study conducted by researchers from the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Health and the Environment found that the bodies of individuals who eat fish from the lower Hudson River and New York Harbor contain higher levels of PCBs than people from the same communities who do not eat such fish. The more such fish are eaten, the higher the levels. Latinos and African-Americans—
many of whom are immigrants from Caribbean islands where subsistence fishing is commonplace—were found to have higher DDT levels than Caucasians.
The sneaky thing about developmental neurotoxins is that their effects don’t manifest immediately, so you can eat a bay-caught shark-steak lunch and feel fit to jog a mile fifteen minutes later. Consuming contaminated fish won’t make adults sick overnight “the way a bad oyster will,” Fitzgerald says. “The risk is from eating it repeatedly, which can have neurological effects or effects on your motor function and memory—not stuff you want.” Bit by bit, mercury poisoning can cause permanent hearing and vision impairment, hypertension, serious skin problems, and loss of coordination. In children and fetuses, mercury stunts brain growth.
While mercury is a metal, other classes of contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins are organic chlorines. These accumulate in fat, “so a lot of them have very long half-lives,” Fitzgerald says, “and take a very long time to break down once they’re in the environment.” PCBs, which a growing mass of evidence now links to fetal brain damage, “were developed to withstand high pressure in industrial settings,” he explains. In other words, PCBs were built to last, and they sure do—in the tissue of whatever living creatures ingest them, including babies who consume them via breast milk. “It’s ironic,” Fitzgerald says, “that what makes this substance desirable is the exact same thing that makes it impossible to clean up.”
Recent studies on fish yield an ever-longer contaminant checklist. Now in your sweet-and-sour sea bass: flame retardants. And in your ceviche: the components of personal-care products. “These are things that don’t get filtered out of water,” Fitzgerald says. Prozac and birth control drugs have been showing up in seafood as well, he says, especially in urban areas that are “closer to the source of contamination.” The long-term effects on humans cannot yet be determined, “but it is very telling about our society that we’re putting all these substances into our systems intentionally at first and getting them unintentionally
on the back end from something we never thought of.” And given the findings of those New York surveys, we know who will be hit hardest of all.
Even though California’s fish-advisory programs are hailed as being among the nation’s best, Fish & Game’s Harry Morse raises a troublesome point: Will anglers believe what they read? “For many fishermen,” Morse muses, “their most relied-upon source of information is the guy fishing next to them at the pier—the guy who says, ‘Don’t worry, I eat this stuff all the time and I’m fine.’ It’s their friend, their brother, their cousin whom they trust. It’s not the government.”