Fishing on the Dock of the Bay

Too many fishermen are still unaware of the dangers of consuming San Francisco Bay seafood

So far, policy-makers have focused their effort and money primarily on attempts to clean the bay itself, which is still being fouled with mercury from old gold mining operations in the Sierra Nevada foothills and by a wide range of toxins from other sources. In all, some 2,700 pounds of contaminants enter the bay each year. Cleanup plans often leave little room for angler education. Activists recently had to pressure the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to include more specific language about health outreach in its new mercury reduction plan.

The plan, which is still being deliberated, would cost $132 million a year to cut the amount of mercury seeping into the bay by more than 40 percent over the next two decades. What that means for today's angler is both simple and sobering: Fish in the bay will not be toxin-free for another 120 years.


Distant solutions hold no promise for Fernando Banaria, who won't be alive in 2125. And long-term health risks that don't scream "danger" get scant attention from the many anglers who seem to think that if the fish are swimming, they're safe to eat.

"I've never been poisoned," says Banaria, a regular who fishes at Candlestick Point once a week. He's been dropping lines in the bay for 20 years and has never felt ill after eating the fish. Does he think about pollution in the water?

"It's in the back of my mind," he says. "But you know, the condition of the bay is much better than it used to be. At first you could only eat two meals a month. Now it's three."

Actually, it's still two, and it's strange that Banaria doesn't know this. He reads the papers and watches television news. He even describes a television report he saw on contaminated fish in the Farallon Islands. Still, Banaria is largely unaware of the risks of eating fish from the bay.

Too much mercury, for example, could short-circuit his central nervous system. It could bind with his proteins and cause headaches, tremors, and weakness. It could interfere with his ability to speak, hear, or think straight. He could become infertile. His kidneys could fail. He could develop cancer.

Then again, he might be fine.

No one eats a mercury-laden fish from the bay one day and wakes up with cancer the next. In fact, no direct causal link exists between eating fish from the bay and serious illness. The chemicals in the fish can cause severe health risks over time; that much is certain. But humans ingest mercury and other toxins in many different ways. Two or three servings of canned albacore tuna per week could do just as much harm as eating fish from the bay.

It's impossible to tell. Experts say no long-term health study of subsistence fishermen has ever been done in the United States, much less the Bay Area.

"We don't really do assessments like this," says Mike Connor, the executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, which analyzes and publishes data for local policy-makers. "Shouldn't we be treating people if there are health effects? Shouldn't we be doing a better job of warning people rather than just a few dilapidated signs?"


Shon Harbarth and Michelle Forehard are skippers on The Dandy, a 38-foot charter fishing boat that operates out of Emeryville. Weather and clientele permitting, they are on the water several days a week. Like other charter boat crewmen, they often catch their dinner in the bay. They've heard the health warnings and seen the signs. They just don't believe them.

"It's all bull," says Harbarth, standing on the dock behind the Emeryville Sportfishing office.

Harbarth grew up in the area. He's been sailing and fishing the bay since he was a boy. His hands are rough from hauling nets and baiting lures. So are Forehard's. Tanned, hair bleached blond by the sun, the two are used to squinting when they work.

Today, they've been fishing for Dungeness crabs. They've kept a bagful to take home. Crabs don't build up the contaminant levels that fish do, but that matters little to Harbarth and Forehard. Normally they eat fish from the bay once or twice a week.

"It's good for you," Forehard says.

Tonight, however, is Thanksgiving, and a turkey reprieve from a diet rich in fish, fresh -- or not -- from San Francisco Bay.

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