The Last Days of the Ocean
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Toxic Fish and Poor Communities

A Bay Area activist raises awareness about contaminated fish.

| Wed Mar. 1, 2006 3:00 AM EST

In San Francisco’s tony restaurants, one can feast on perfectly seared ahi tuna or sample butter drizzled mahi mahi accompanied by a $50 bottle of wine. Just across the Bay, however, is a whole different world -- fishermen in Richmond live on toxic fish caught from a place that is recognized as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

High school student ambassadors from the Ma’at (pronounced my-OT) Youth Academy are trying to increase awareness among these fishermen of the dangers of eating certain fish from this area. In 2001, the youth designed a study investigating the fishing habits and fish consumption among the local population in Contra Costa County. Seventy percent of the anglers surveyed were Asian, African American or Latino, and 73 percent regularly ate fish caught from the bay, including bass and white croaker (kingfish), both of which appear on fish consumption advisories.

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Sharon Fuller is the executive director of the Ma’at Youth Academy and a lifelong Richmond resident. Fuller founded the Academy in 1994, after taking stock of conditions in her community, where a disproportionate number of toxic-emitting facilities are located, including some 350 facilities in the “Iron Triangle” between the cities of North Richmond, Parchester Village and San Pablo. “Through looking at more pristine parks outside of our communities, I began to ask why don’t those same conditions exist in our home,” said Fuller, who was compelled to research pollution levels and then distribute the information to the community.

In 2004, Fuller was named Woman of the Year in California’s 14th District. She spoke with Mother Jones from her office in Richmond, Calif., about the difficulties of getting fishermen to change their eating habits, the predominance of research on contaminated fish but little that focuses on people, and the difference between traditional environmental groups and the environmental justice movement.

MJ: Why is there a lack of awareness about contamination in these coastal communities?

SF: Educational outreach efforts do not address low-income communities or communities of color. Our focus is getting information to folks who we believe are not getting the information. A lot of the communities in Contra Costa county and Alameda county are coastal. They have large populations of subsistence fishing folks. The public health advisories are focusing primarily on commercial fish, not sports fish or recreational fish. We realized that was an area that needed additional work and educational outreach. We’re focusing on the populations who are fishing out of the bay, who are going to farmer’s markets, who are eating canned tuna.

MJ: Is contaminated fish a big problem in Contra Costa and Alameda counties?

SF: It’s a big problem in California. The mercury issue is a huge legacy in California, but it comes from the mining industry. The national debate is talking about mercury being emitted form coal-firing plants, so California is completely out of that debate. We look at other sources of mercury and how it’s still reaching into the environment from decades of prior mining activities, how it is accumulating through the food chain and still getting into the diets of human population. There’s a lot of research that looks at the aquatic species, but there’s not a lot of research looking at the impact on people. In a lot of the water bodies throughout California, there are advisories about contaminated fish or fish with elevated contaminant levels. But the advisories are not readily accessible. One of the sites in Richmond is a Superfund site, which requires extensive clean-up and is on a priority list for clean-up. It’s one of the few sites that remains available to the public to actually fish. A part of their culture and heritage is fishing out of the bay, but it’s one of the most contaminated sites. There were not any signs posted until our organization demanded that folks were made aware of what the levels of contamination were in that area.

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