By Ian Walker
We know the old saying by heart: give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll lie around in a boat all day drinking beer. For fisher-folk in the San Francisco Bay, the idea of grabbing a beer and dangling a line has just gotten a little more attractive.
For almost two decades we’ve known that mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the bay are endangering both humans and fish. In 1994, the state issued a fish advisory limiting how much people can safely eat. Last month, California released new guidelines for eating fish from the San Francisco Bay. While the old advisory was very restrictive, the new one allows for anglers and their families to eat more of some fish– some being the key. Different fish have varying levels and types of contamination. Women and children should be especially careful about how much fish they eat, because mercury can harm fetuses and young bodies.
The guidelines recommend that women 18-45 and children 1-17 can eat up to:
– Two servings a week of salmon, brown rockfish, jacksmelt, or red rock crab
– One serving a week of halibut or white croaker
– They should not eat any shark, surfperch, striped bass, or white sturgeon
Mercury is the “driver” in this advice because it can harm brain development in utero and during childhood. PCBs, which are known to cause cancer and damage the immune system, play a greater role in the advice for adult men and women over 45.
Adult men and women over 45 should stay away from surfperch due to PCB contamination, but can eat more of other species—up to seven servings a week of salmon or five servings of brown rockfish. The advisory recommends one to two servings a week of other fish from the bay. This is a great improvement over the 1994 advisory that limited fish consumption to one meal a month for women and 2 meals a month for men.
Health department officials in the Office of Health Hazard Assessment are quick to point out that just because we can eat more of some fish, it doesn’t mean that the bay is cleaner. The revised guidelines are based on more information about fish, not changes in the amount of pollution. We have to be just as diligent in protecting our local watersheds, and just as invested in programs like The Watershed Project’s Living Shoreline Initiative to help restore it.
For many, conservation is about preserving natural life above all. But environmentalists like Rowan Jacobsen have provided a powerful example of how to conserve and consume. Nutritionists and health officials agree that we need to be eating more fish, as long as it’s the right fish. Fish is a great source of low-fat protein and heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat two meals of fish each week.
The new guidelines released last month provide species-specific advice and tips for reducing your exposure as well. So pick up a brochure from the Office of Health Hazard Assessment and cast a line into your local waters. Fishing novices and enthusiasts alike can find the complete advisory on the State of California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Photos (from top): Fishing in the bay, Chinook salmon, Brown rockfish