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Fishing for toxins in the Bay

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish at a pier in the Bay, and you might just poison him with mercury.

That’s the quandary facing fishermen — gender neutral — who go out each day to feed themselves and their families from places like Pier 7 or Candlestick Point. Fishing for a free meal is enticing when the belly rumbles. But experts like Margy Gassell of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment say too much Bay fish can increase the risk of toxic exposure:

“Some of the fish that live in the San Francisco Bay have mercury in them. Actually, most have mercury in them — and certain kinds of fish [contain] lots of mercury.”

She says that mercury, PCBs, and other industrial chemicals can make these subsistence fishermen or their families very sick.

The problem is, when faced with the decision between getting sick tomorrow and having nothing to eat today, many take their chances and put fish on the table.

Still worse, the number of subsistence fishermen in the Bay Area reaches into the thousands. Most of them are African American or Asian, reports Gassell. In addition, many of them aren’t hearing the health warnings — some because they are too concerned with finding food to worry about it, while others because they don’t speak English.

Although officials and nonprofits are trying to get the word out, there’s only so much they can do to stop a hungry person from getting food, even if it’s contaminated.

But truly, this is like trying to fix your door when termites are eating away at your house. Instead of trying to stop people from eating these fish, maybe the state should consider how we can keep our aquatic environment free of toxic crap in the first place. And feed people who really need it.

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