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Toxic Fish and Poor Communities

A Bay Area activist raises awareness about contaminated fish.

| Wed Mar. 1, 2006 4:00 AM EST

MJ: What species of fish are contaminated there?

SF: Surf perch and striped bass are the main two that we’re warning folks about. In the Delta area, it’s the channel catfish. Another one that has high levels of mercury is the white croaker; the street name is kingfish. It’s readily caught in the harbor area or any shallow water body. That’s the fish we really educate folks about because it’s an easy fish to catch, people catch quite a few of them, but it has some of the highest levels of mercury. The national advisory actually advises people to eat white croaker. This is because on the East Coast, white croaker it is fine, but it is not on the West Coast. These advisories really have to look at the regional advisories or even advisories to local sites because often times they’re very different. We try to get folks to really look at advisories specific to the region.

Another concern with national advisories is that they have recently changed the food pyramid to really emphasize the benefits of eating tuna without clarifying that different types of tuna have higher levels of mercury. That’s the type of information we’re trying to get out: there are different types of fish that people can buy and different locations you can fish in to reduce your exposure. Our message is not for people not to consume fish. People would not even listen to that. But there are healthy alternatives for the short-term. The long-term goal is to create water bodies that are free of contaminants or that have greatly reduced the amount of contaminants. When you look at the state water board that proposes a 25-year mitigation plan, it’s really not in the best interest of folks, when you don’t really address immediate needs. Twenty-five years is way too long.

MJ: What has been the reaction of those fishers whom you are trying to make aware of the contaminants in the bay?

SF: The folks who are fishing daily are appreciative to know which ones may have more contaminants than others, which ones they’re catching are really healthy, which sites they have reduced levels. A lot of them might not know so much about what types of contaminants are in there, but they know some areas are more polluted than others. The majority of people we’re working with are not convinced that the contaminants are high enough to cause any damage, and that’s our concern. Even those that we have informed about contaminant levels are still not convinced that they need to change their behavior. There’s not a national message that says this can cause chronic damage to your system. It’s a little harder to convince folks about the long -term effects.

One thing we do is give people healthy alternatives. They can have a variety of fish and not focus on one fish. At a policy level, we’re working on folks having access to testing their total body burden through a statewide biomonitoring program that’s being proposed by state Senator Deborah Ortiz. This would allow folks to go into a clinic, have their hair or blood tested to determine the level of contaminants in their body to see if they’re being exposed to too much contamination. This is third year we’re trying to get it passed. It got all the way to the Governor’s desk last year before he vetoed it.

MJ: What are African Americans’ relationship to oceans and rivers and lakes?

SF: African Americans have grown up living near water bodies - bayous, sloughs, and rivers - and having those bodies sustain them. It’s no great leap to have the same thing when folks migrated from the South to the West Coast. They still rely on the fish and the land to sustain them. It’s expected that those resources are healthy. It’s a natural transition that a large portion of their diet would come from the ocean, the sea, creeks, and bays. It’s just a part of the culture.

MJ: What are some of the fish consumption studies your group has done?

SF: We wanted to find out what people knew and who was fishing. We went around to the more popular local fishing spots in Contra Costa county, and surveyed folks to see if they were aware of the public health advisories, what kind of fish they were catching, how often they fished, and what they did with the fish after they caught it. In the first year, we found that they weren’t aware of the advisories or of the alternatives they could choose to fish. The second year, there was more awareness, but still an unwillingness to change behavior. It goes back to it’s just a part of their culture, a part of their life.

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