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Fishing on the Dock of the Bay 

Too many fishermen are still unaware of the dangers of consuming San Francisco Bay seafood

Wednesday, Dec 15 2004
At the end of Candlestick Point pier, Khari Evans gets a bump. His pole bucks. His line goes taut. It's a sunny November day with a mild breeze -- perfect fishing weather -- and this is what Evans has been waiting for.

"Might be a keeper," he says, grinning under his Raiders ski cap as he reels in his catch. The other fishermen scramble from their poles to watch. Soon, Evans has hoisted a thrashing 4-foot leopard shark out of the water and halfway up the side of the pier.

"Oooo-wee!" shouts one of the anglers. "That's an arm right there!"

Evans has fished these waters for years. He knows that the leopard shark, named for its dappled skin, makes a toothsome meal. He knows how to slit a shark's gills and bleed its body before cooking it. He has also heard about the state health advisory for fish caught in San Francisco Bay, a body of water so contaminated the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled it a "toxic hot spot." But, like most Bay Area anglers, Evans doesn't know the specifics of the advisory. He's never studied the county's yellow warning sign, the one with fine print in seven languages. He's not aware that the leopard shark has a higher average mercury content than any fish in the bay; or that bleeding it does nothing to drain the toxins from its muscle tissue.

Lucky for him, he's off the hook this afternoon. Mere inches from being hauled onto the pier, Evans' leopard shark twists off the line and disappears into the milky green water. It heads back toward the nearby Hunters Point Superfund site, where the U.S. Navy once hosed down radioactive ships and industrial waste still leaches into the bay.

Evans shrugs. It's time to go home. He breaks down his rig. As he ambles back onto terra firma, he glances at the yellow sign at the base of the pier.

"Huh," he says. "I guess you can't eat shark."

But people do. They eat just about anything they pull out of the water here. They eat things that spawn and grow and swim in a chemical brew pumped into the bay from abandoned mines, city sewers, and agricultural and industrial runoff. It is not a healthy diet.

In 1994, the state EPA issued an advisory for San Francisco Bay that warned of potentially dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins in local fish. Still in effect today, the advisory recommends that adults eat no more than two meals from the bay per month. That adds up to roughly 16 ounces of fish. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under age 6 should only eat half that amount. They should also avoid striped bass and sharks of certain sizes. Nobody should eat striped bass over 35 inches.

The warning is detailed; awareness of it is, generally, vague. In 2001, the state's Department of Health Services published a comprehensive survey of 1,300 Bay Area anglers. Sixty-one percent had heard of the advisory, but only 34 percent could recall its specifics.

With little understanding of the dangers they face, many people who eat fish from the bay are unwittingly loading up on a nasty buffet of contaminants. Besides mercury, several other chemicals have oozed into the food chain: electronic insulators and flame retardants such as PCBs and PBDEs; dioxins; and insecticides such as chlordane and DDT. They all do damage to the body. Many can cause cancer.

People who rely on the bay for food are most at risk. They also exhibit the most dangerous fishing practices, studies show. These anglers come mainly from low-income minority communities and often eat more fish than the advisory recommends, sometimes consuming three times the monthly limit. They eat striped bass, halibut, white croaker, and shark, all large species at the top of the food chain. Thanks to a process called biomagnification, these seemingly desirable fish are actually more dangerous than smaller fry.

As chemicals enter the water and sediment of the bay through runoff and air pollution, they are taken up by plankton. Small fish eat the plankton. Big fish eat the small fish. When humans eat the big fish, they absorb all the chemicals that have built up in the food chain. Many subsistence fishermen also come from cultures that consume the head, innards, and skin of the fish, where toxins concentrate.

"In the Laotian culture, we eat it all," says Torm Normpraseurt, the head of the Laotian Organizing Project, a community outreach group. "And some people fish every day."

Activists have pleaded with the state and the city to boost angler awareness for years. For years, they've received the same reply: Go fish. Little headway has been made since the mid-'90s, when the San Francisco Department of the Environment created signs for the owners of 14 county fishing sites to post and maintain. "But it's not mandatory," says Ken Sato, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment.

Today, some of the signs are easily overlooked (the one at Candlestick Point is posted at hip level at the foot of the pier, far from where anglers fish). Others are covered in graffiti. The fishermen largely ignore them and, even if they did or could read them, might be baffled by their intricate language. In the bird's nest of environmental agencies with some oversight responsibility for the bay, no government office has a mandate to educate fishermen. No agency sends educators into immigrant communities or onto piers.

So far, policy-makers have focused their effort and money primarily on attempts to clean the bay itself, which is still being fouled with mercury from old gold mining operations in the Sierra Nevada foothills and by a wide range of toxins from other sources. In all, some 2,700 pounds of contaminants enter the bay each year. Cleanup plans often leave little room for angler education. Activists recently had to pressure the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to include more specific language about health outreach in its new mercury reduction plan.

The plan, which is still being deliberated, would cost $132 million a year to cut the amount of mercury seeping into the bay by more than 40 percent over the next two decades. What that means for today's angler is both simple and sobering: Fish in the bay will not be toxin-free for another 120 years.

Distant solutions hold no promise for Fernando Banaria, who won't be alive in 2125. And long-term health risks that don't scream "danger" get scant attention from the many anglers who seem to think that if the fish are swimming, they're safe to eat.

"I've never been poisoned," says Banaria, a regular who fishes at Candlestick Point once a week. He's been dropping lines in the bay for 20 years and has never felt ill after eating the fish. Does he think about pollution in the water?

"It's in the back of my mind," he says. "But you know, the condition of the bay is much better than it used to be. At first you could only eat two meals a month. Now it's three."

Actually, it's still two, and it's strange that Banaria doesn't know this. He reads the papers and watches television news. He even describes a television report he saw on contaminated fish in the Farallon Islands. Still, Banaria is largely unaware of the risks of eating fish from the bay.

Too much mercury, for example, could short-circuit his central nervous system. It could bind with his proteins and cause headaches, tremors, and weakness. It could interfere with his ability to speak, hear, or think straight. He could become infertile. His kidneys could fail. He could develop cancer.

Then again, he might be fine.

No one eats a mercury-laden fish from the bay one day and wakes up with cancer the next. In fact, no direct causal link exists between eating fish from the bay and serious illness. The chemicals in the fish can cause severe health risks over time; that much is certain. But humans ingest mercury and other toxins in many different ways. Two or three servings of canned albacore tuna per week could do just as much harm as eating fish from the bay.

It's impossible to tell. Experts say no long-term health study of subsistence fishermen has ever been done in the United States, much less the Bay Area.

"We don't really do assessments like this," says Mike Connor, the executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, which analyzes and publishes data for local policy-makers. "Shouldn't we be treating people if there are health effects? Shouldn't we be doing a better job of warning people rather than just a few dilapidated signs?"

Shon Harbarth and Michelle Forehard are skippers on The Dandy, a 38-foot charter fishing boat that operates out of Emeryville. Weather and clientele permitting, they are on the water several days a week. Like other charter boat crewmen, they often catch their dinner in the bay. They've heard the health warnings and seen the signs. They just don't believe them.

"It's all bull," says Harbarth, standing on the dock behind the Emeryville Sportfishing office.

Harbarth grew up in the area. He's been sailing and fishing the bay since he was a boy. His hands are rough from hauling nets and baiting lures. So are Forehard's. Tanned, hair bleached blond by the sun, the two are used to squinting when they work.

Today, they've been fishing for Dungeness crabs. They've kept a bagful to take home. Crabs don't build up the contaminant levels that fish do, but that matters little to Harbarth and Forehard. Normally they eat fish from the bay once or twice a week.

"It's good for you," Forehard says.

Tonight, however, is Thanksgiving, and a turkey reprieve from a diet rich in fish, fresh -- or not -- from San Francisco Bay.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien


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