Carcinogens in Bay Fish Alarm Local Consumers

By FRED DODSWORTH Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 15, 2003

In the face of growing evidence that our bays and oceans are badly mismanaged on every level, selling seafood to informed and concerned diners is a task akin to a steelhead trout swimming up one of Berkeley’s culverted and polluted creeks to spawn. 

On Friday, Oliveto Café and Restaurant launched a three-day Oceanic Dinners program and hosted a brief seminar on the state of our local, coastal fisheries. The same day, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Oakland and Washington D.C., held a press conference at the Berkeley Marina to discuss a new report warning of the dangerous levels of carcinogenic compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBEDs) found in San Francisco Bay fish. 

“There are no easy answers to these problems—the problems of over fishing, coastal development and pollution,” said Elizabeth Sturcken of the Alliance for Environmental Defense. Sturcken spoke at the Oceanic Dinners program at the College Avenue restaurant on Friday. “Fish play a critical role in our ocean ecosystem, and the ocean in turn sustains us in many ways. Without the ocean, basically, we would all be dead.” 

She said that not only does the ocean produce most of the oxygen in the world, it also absorbs most of the carbon dioxide. 

“And of course the oceans provide us with fish, a healthy and delicious form of food,” Sturcken said. “Fish are really a critical part of our coastal and ocean ecosystems. Data shows that the oceans and fisheries are really in a crisis. We have moved so far away from a healthy and abundant ecosystem that we’ve kind of forgotten what that really means anymore.” 

Despite growing concern about our coastal and oceanic environment and due to cyclic oceanic trends, decreased pollution compared to 30 years ago and new regulations limiting the fish harvest, the health of the local coastal ecosystem is better than it’s been in decades, with more fish and visibly healthier fish. Even as far north as Washington, the number of wild salmon returning to spawn is twice what it was in the 1930s. Sturcken put those numbers in perspective by noting that the number of salmon in those rivers in the 1930s was only 10 percent of the salmon population in the same rivers during the 1800s.  

While the fish may be more plentiful and more healthy, eating them is not necessarily so.  

“Mercury and heavy metals accumulate in animals at the top of the food chain,” said Sturcken. “There are a bunch of fish that have been labeled as ones to watch out for. That’s going to be swordfish and marlin and king mackerel and shark and tile fish.”  

Tom Worthington sells fish to many of the Bay Area’s finest restaurants through his company Monterey Fish Market. He also is concerned about the concentration of pollutants in all large fish. 

“The one thing I would say to you is vary your diet all the time,” Worthington said. “Even the slice of swordfish once in a while is not going to do harm to you, but eating it all the time, yeah, it’s going to build up in your system and it’s going to cause problems. If I was talking to anyone who was thinking about having children, I would point them away from all sorts of things we eat, not just fish that have mercury in them.” 

Not only women in their childbearing years, but children also are at risk from the accumulated pollutants found in almost all our modern foods. 

“I would never eat a farmed salmon,” said Natasha Benjamin, Fisheries Program Officer for the Institute for Fisheries Resources. “The levels of PCBs in farmed salmon are skyrocketing. Let alone the artificial colorants that damage your retinas, and the antibiotics. I eat [wild] salmon. Basically that’s the only fish I’ll eat regularly. I eat tuna maybe once every few months, a small piece, and a little bit of mahi mahi, the dolphin fish. Some people say ‘Don’t eat fish.’ I would never say that. Sardines are rich in Omega-3s, there’s a lot of health benefits there, [also] anchovies.” 

Despite the daily dose of doom and gloom research scientists serve up for our consumption, there are both bright spots and effective action plans each of us can take.  

“It actually does come down to every individual and the decisions you make and the people you talk to. When you go into a restaurant [or grocery store] ask questions and turn your head away when they don’t have the right answer,” said Worthington. “A restaurant hears that enough times and they feel like, ‘There’s that damn question again. We got to start bringing in the right fish. We can’t bring in farmed salmon anymore. We’re just going to use wild salmon from now on. Hook and line caught.’ That’s how it’s done. Learn more, use your voice, write your letters, use your dollars. It’s amazing to see what has happened over the last few years on this. At Monterey Fish we’ve been talking about this forever. Now we’re hearing about it from New York, we’re hearing about it from L.A. Slowly but surely these things do become a revolution and people make big changes.” 

“It’s all about moderation,” said Benjamin. “There’s a report that just came out that said women should not eat a lot of meat and dairy and fish, in general, if you’re of the childbearing age. They can eat hormone-free, antibiotic-free poultry. I eat organic milk and wild salmon. Once every four months I eat a little tuna. I eat organic vegetables, organic fruit. It’s an expensive hobby eating. I’m lucky I can eat those things. A lot of people don’t have those choices. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. We’ve got to keep the positiveness because otherwise people are not going to eat it at all and then there’s no economic incentive to protect the resource anymore.”