It’s crab season in California, and commercial fishermen can’t unload their catches fast enough to satisfy the crowds filling Fisherman’s Wharf. But out on the public piers behind the Embarcadero, away from the big boats, you’ll find a different breed of fisherman. They set out their poles, unroll their lines, add some bait, and wait quietly for dinner to arrive.
These are subsistence fishermen. Men like Mr. Chen, who prefers a pier near the end of the Ferry Building. He didn’t want his first name used. Mr Chen’s fished here for a few years. And since 2008 or so, when the economy tanked, he’s had plenty of company. “I’ve been here a long time, the fish have been dwindling,” says Chen.
Community outreach workers say a growing number of people – often poor Asians and African Americans – are dining out at the piers. More people fishing means there are fewer fish to go around, which makes the ones Mr. Chen can catch all the more precious. “If I catch anything it's smelt,” says Chen, who just learned hot to fish.
It’s an enticing prospect: Aspiring fishermen on local shores can expect salmon, croaker, sturgeon… even the occasional rock crab, all for free.
But there’s a big tradeoff.
“Some of the fish that live in San Francisco Bay have mercury in them,” says Margy Gassel of the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. “Actually,” she clarifies, “most fish have mercury in them – and certain kinds of fish have lots of mercury in them.”
Gassel’s worried that mercury, PCBs and other industrial chemicals could make fishermen like Mr. Chen sick – and that they won’t know until they’re very sick. “People aren’t going to get obviously sick after eating fish, but the contaminants can build up in their bodies and can cause harm,” Gassel says.
The metal’s effects on adults aren’t well known. But mercury poisoning can cause serious disabilities in newborns – that’s why pregnant women are supposed to stay away from fish. So when they realized how high mercury levels were in fish from the bay, Gassel’s agency considered outlawing fishing altogether. Ultimately, they decided to issue a new Fish Advisory that put some fish off-limits to some people. For example, all children under 18 and women between the ages of 18 and 45 should never eat surfperch, striped bass, sharks, or sturgeon from the bay. As of 2013, the new advisory warns against also eating all bass in general, carp, and brown trout over 16 inches long. Men should keep it to no more than one serving per week.
To fishermen like Mr. Chen, mercury poisoning is an abstract concept compared with hunger. Chen says he’s not really focusing on it. “There's a lot of pollution out there, but I can't worry about everything,” says Chen.
Farmmary Saephan works with APA Family Support Services, a collection of community groups that does health and crisis intervention with Asian and Pacific Islander families. Saephan says the fish warnings often miss the mark with families – if they hear them at all. Many fishers don’t speak English, and some are illiterate.
That’s why the California Department of Public Health hired APA Family Support Services and three other agencies to reach out to these fishermen. Over the next six months they’ll translate the fish advisory pamphlet into several languages, including Cambodian, Samoan and Korean. They’ll spend time on the piers, finding out what kind of fish people are catching and whom they’re eating it with.
A survey taken in 2001 found that most fishermen earn less than $20,000 a year, and that one in ten was eating unsafe amounts of fish.
Officials have never measured how many subsistence fishermen are out on the Bay, but know they’re in the thousands, according to Gassel. “I don’t think anyone has figured out a way to reach subsistence fishers. We just know that there are a lot of people who rely on fish for food,” Gassel.
Saephan says what they’ve learned so far suggests finances trump health concerns every time. “Why do a fish versus, let’s say, a Cup of Noodle? A Cup of Noodle will probably feed one person, barely, for one meal. But a fish can feed three or four person in a family, and you can even use every part of the fish.”
Saephan herself is familiar with this quandary. Her family is from Laos, and they fish too. So what happens when they bring fish home from the bay that she knows she shouldn’t eat? “I don’t decline, actually. I don’t know – it’s a family pressure, cultural pressure,” she says.
Some Asian families tell Saephan they can’t understand why they shouldn’t feed their children fish. It’s an issue fishing families will have to contend with for years to come – and one that health officials will continue to watch.
If you’re eating fish from the Bay, officials say an easy way to remove some of the contamination is to skin the fish and then broil it or bake it, so the fatty juices can drip off. That’s a good way to remove PCB’s but won’t work for mercury, which binds to protein in fish meat. You could also just stick to salmon and rockfish – health officials say those are safe for everyone.