The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) finally released its health advisory and safe eating guidelines for fish caught from coastal areas from Ventura Harbor south to the Dana Point area. The results do not bode well for those that regularly eat locally caught coastal fish.
The recommendations are based on a NOAA/EPA fish contamination study of DDT, PCB and mercury contaminant levels in fish collected over five years ago. The agency used some supplementary fish contamination data from Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and Los Angeles monitoring programs as well.
DDT and PCB manufacturing was banned over 30 years ago, but there are still over 100 tons of DDT and PCBs contaminating the sediments off of the Palos Verdes coast.
Despite the fact that OEHHA unconscionably chose to set the cancer risk for fish consumption at 1 in 10,000 (1 in 100,000 to 1 in a million is the norm and those ranges are the risk levels used by EPA), the health recommendations are pretty far reaching.
From just south of the Santa Monica Pier to Seal Beach Pier, OEHHA recommends that women 18 to 45 and children under 17 stay away from eating white croaker, black croaker, barracuda (due to mercury contamination — a big driver of risk in this fish), barred sand bass and topsmelt. Yes, topsmelt.
On top of those disturbing recommendations, those same groups shouldn’t eat California halibut, sargo, California scorpionfish (sculpin), rockfishes, kelp bass or shovelnose guitarfish more than once a week.
There are even strict warnings of not more than two meals a week for Pacific chub mackerel, corbina, yellowfin croaker, queenfish, surf perches and opaleye for young women and children.
Basically, the guide is saying that women of child-bearing age and children should reduce or avoid eating most fish from central Santa Monica Bay to Palos Verdes to all of San Pedro Bay. That’s a big difference from the old guidance to avoid white croaker caught off of Palos Verdes.
The recommendations for adult males and women over 45 are more lenient, as are the recommendations for fish caught outside the red zone from south of Santa Monica Pier to Seal Beach Pier. However, no one should be running out any time soon to catch and eat barred sand bass, topsmelt and white croaker.
Another surprise that should hit home for all of the locals is that California halibut is now on the reduce consumption list: two meals a week for the migratory, bottom dweller for the entire study area (Ventura to Dana Point). Not a great outcome for the popular annual Santa Monica Bay Halibut Derby.
Until this health advisory was released, we always had a logical explanation for why certain fish should be avoided for consumption. For example, Heal the Bay, OEHHA and others warned people to stop eating white croaker caught near Palos Verdes because the croaker was a non-migratory, bottom-dwelling fish that frequented the organically enriched waters over the DDT- and PCB -contaminated Palos Verdes shelf. Scientifically, it is pretty tough to come up with an ecological reason why topsmelt are so contaminated. But they are. And so are rockfish, kelp bass and barred sand bass to the most sensitive fish-consuming populations.
OEHHA gave some strange advice on how to enjoy eating fish in a safe manner. Its consumption advice is based on contaminant levels in skin-off filets. That means that the risk to fish consumers is even higher if they eat whole fish or fish with skin. The reason why eating whole fish is a bigger risk is because DDT and PCBs concentrate in fat and organs such that whole fish have three to 12 times more contaminants than fish filets.
So if you want to eat contaminated fish more safely, call over your surgeon friends or start honing ginzu knife skills on topsmelt. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure that no one is going to filet tiny contaminated fish to reduce carcinogen intake. The reality is that Asian and Pacific Islander fish consumers prepare fish by gutting it, cooking it, and eating it whole.
Another piece of sage advice offered by OEHHA is to keep eating lots of fish because of the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids. Consumption of fish is good for the heart and for brain development. Don’t let those pesky carcinogens and neurotoxins (mercury) get in the way of good dietary practices, they seem to urge. This advice ignores our right to consume fish that is good for us and is not contaminated with anthropogenic toxins. The recommendations from OEHHA, although extremely scary, are definitely fishy in their underestimating of the health risks to substantial sensitive populations.
Mark Gold is president of Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based environmental organization.