Fontana resident Deborah White has spent most of her life fishing along the Los Angeles County coast.
“I’ve been fishing down here since I was knee-high to a duck,” she said this month while fishing at the Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier in Long Beach.
And for most of her life, White and her husband Ray – along with other anglers – have had to be careful about which fish they eat.
The nearby underwater Palos Verdes Shelf is one of the largest contaminated sediment sites in the United States. The contamination stems from decades of DDT and PCB discharge into the local sewer system, which emptied into the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Although the shelf is just off the coast of the peninsula at Los Angeles County’s southernmost tip, the contaminated fish that frequent the area range all along the county coastline and into neighboring Orange County’s coastal zones. That includes the waters off of Long Beach east of the peninsula.
On any given day, dozens of anglers – some with dozens of fishing poles – line the Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier for recreation or to get their next meal.
Oscar Gonzalez, a 56-year-old San Pedro resident, said that on the rare occasions that he fishes in Long Beach, he has noticed that the dangerous fish aren’t publicly listed anywhere.
“There are people that don’t know and they eat them,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “Here they don’t have signs like in San Pedro. There they have signs that tell you which fish are OK.”
The Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services is looking to change that.
The department has been a partner in the EPA’s outreach program since 2005 and is in the process of putting up warning signs about contaminated fish at the pier, said environmental health specialist Monica Cardenas.
She said the department also does outreach at health and community fairs, does quarterly inspections with the California Department of Fish and Game to ensure that contaminated fish aren’t reaching local markets, and provides fish contamination education to nurses, among other education steps.
The dangerous chemicals that contaminate local fish are no longer dumped into the sewers, but since 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency has operated an expansive public outreach and education program called the Fish Contamination Education Collaborative. The EPA partnered with numerous local agencies, from health departments to environmental groups to community organizations, to spread the word about the dangers of local fish.
What began as a warning in 1985 against eating white croaker – a bottom-feeding fish that ingests DDT and PCB from the sediment on the ocean floor and whose fatty body tends to more easily store the chemicals – has since expanded into a list of five “do-not-eat” fish. In addition to the white croaker, those fish are the barred sand bass, black croaker, topsmelt and barracuda, while people should limit their intake of certain other fish species.
“Many fishermen from the piers know that white croaker is one of the most contaminated fish in the red zone, from Santa Monica Pier through Seal Beach Pier, but many still refuse to believe that we have more fish we should avoid,” said Frankie Orrala, angler outreach coordinator for Heal the Bay, one of the organizations that has partnered with the EPA.
Thanks to the outreach program and simple word of mouth, area anglers interviewed recently at the Long Beach pier seemed well aware of the risks that come with eating some species of fish. That doesn’t seem to stop them from casting their lines, however.
“I don’t worry about it,” said White, a 60-year-old retired security guard who fishes more for fun than food. “I can always go to the fish market.”
Albert Murillo, a 37-year-old Los Angeles resident, has been fishing at the pier for 10 to 15 years, he said. He eats the fish that he can and throws back the contaminated ones, which he can identify by sight, but mostly he just enjoys the sport, he said.
“If you come down here to fish, you’re gonna have fun, and maybe you’ll take some food home,” Murillo said.
He said it doesn’t bother him that some fish are contaminated, so long as education efforts continue.
“It’s good that we’re aware,” Murillo said. “They’re letting people know what’s going on.”
Anglers ignore health officials’ warnings at their own peril, though they may not immediately realize that they are being affected, Cardenas said.
“Eating fish contaminated with DDTs and PCBs does not make people sick right away,” Cardenas said. “The more contaminated fish you eat, the greater the amount of chemicals that build up in your body over time.”
Health problems associated with increased exposure to these chemicals include cancer, liver disease and developmental effects, as well as effects on the immune and endocrine systems, she said. During pregnancy and lactation, mothers can pass DDTs and PCBs on to their infants.
Because chemicals affect development, children through adolescence, elderly people and women of childbearing age are more sensitive to the chemicals and should be especially careful, Cardenas said.
These warnings are likely to continue for years, health officials say.
DDT production in Los Angeles County ended in 1983 – 11 years after the EPA banned its use in the United States, although it was still being exported – but the chemicals remain in the Palos Verdes Shelf sediments.
Since 2000, the EPA has been experimenting with how to cap and contain the contaminated areas. A permanent solution has yet to be found.
“DDTs and PCBs are toxic mixtures of chemicals that are very slow to break down in … nature,” Orrala said. “Dumping DDTs and PCBs into the ocean ended decades ago, but more than 100 tons of these contaminants still remain in the ocean bottom sediments near Los Angeles, where they continue to contaminate fish, birds and other animals in the coastal environment.”
For more information about the outreach program and fish contamination, go to www.pvsfish.org.
FISH CONSUMPTION GUIDELINES
DO NOT EAT: White Croaker, Barracuda, Black Croaker, Barred Sand Bass and Topsmelt
1 Serving Per Week: California Halibut, California Scorpionfish (Sculpin), Kelp Bass, Sardines, Sargo, Shovelnose Guitarfish, Rockfishes
2 Servings Per Week: Corbina, Pacific Chub Mackerel, Queenfish, Opaleye, Surfperches and Yellowfin Croaker
4 Servings Per Week: Jacksmelt
— Source: Fish Contamination Education Collaborative