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Al Martinez

'I've been fishing off this pier since 1942.I know these fish.' : Sunrise on a Toxic Sea

April 11, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

Early morning fog still lay over the ocean like strands of silver ribbon when Jake began fishing from the Santa Monica Pier. He seemed a part of both the fog and the sea, at 6-foot-4 a towering and square-jawed man of 75 with thick white hair and a tanned and weathered face.

"You've got to fish for the halibut," Jake was saying, moving his pole in wide, smooth circles. "They sure as hell ain't going to come to you."

There was a gentle gruffness to his tone, a combination peculiar to big men aware of their size, and old men aware of the ironies.

"I've been fishing off this pier since 1942," Jake said. "I know these fish." He laughed loudly. "Nobody knows 'em like old Jake."

His full name is Jake Spitzer. He comes to the pier three or four times a week early in the morning, before the crowds, almost always wearing a faded blue jump suit that accentuates his proportions. He weighs 207 pounds and, age notwithstanding, still looks as though he could clean out a saloon full of bullies without spilling a drop of beer.

I came looking for fishermen that gold and silver morning to test attitudes. Toxicologists are saying Santa Monica Bay has been poisoned by chemicals, and that the fish are time bombs of cancer. Carcinogens like DDT, cyanide and PCBs. I wanted to know how the fishermen felt.

It was too early for the crowds. The beach belonged to the sea gulls, dipping and soaring in full flight over the sand, calling to each other across the quiet morning.

Pier concessions were just opening. Delivery trucks came and went. In a parking lot below, a film crew prepared to shoot a shampoo commercial.

A half-dozen fishermen leaned over the rails around Jake, waiting for the first faint tug that signaled a catch, their lines moving to the gentle rhythms of the surf, pulled inward, flowing back. One man stood apart, not fishing, staring at the water.

"I used to fish here," he said, "but no more. I wouldn't eat any of that stuff now." He was in his mid-30s and wore a gray running suit. "But I guess it really doesn't matter, does it? The rain is acid and the air's polluted, so why worry about a few poisoned fish?"

Bob Carvel eats the fish. Not the junk fish--the herring and the Santa Monica croaker. "But the halibut's OK," he said. "The halibut's a migratory fish, it doesn't live in the bay." He moved his pole from side to side. "I eat the halibut."

After a moment he added defensively, "Everything's got DDT in it." Pause. "But not the halibut."

Jake Spitzer fished off the end of the pier. He laughed loudly at the very notion that someone would not eat the fish because of reports from college people. College people have nothing to do but report. His laugh was as large as the man, full-throated and challenging.

"That Filipino next to me," he said, gesturing toward a dark-skinned man, "hell, he eats it all. He don't throw nothing away. You'd have to eat 10 pounds of fish a day for the rest of your life to get cancer."

Jake laughed again, visualizing someone eating 10 pounds of fish a day. Fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fish on Sundays as well as Wednesdays. "You'd throw up before you got cancer!" He was still chuckling as he moved his pole in circles. It seemed no larger than a pencil clutched in a fist the size of a pot roast.

When Jake isn't at the pier, he tends gardens. His own and three others. Life is too short to watch it fade out of reach from a rocking chair. A rocking chair is an open casket waiting to be filled.

On fishing days he stops at the Venice Canal first for the fiddler crabs and moss he uses as bait.

"You want to see something dirty," he said, "you look at that place. I watch people catch clams that are black as night. I wouldn't eat the damned things, but they don't care. They eat it all. Maybe they eat the shells too, eh?"

"Look at the water here how nice and green. Would it be nice and green if it were polluted? No!" A big fist slammed down on the railing. "I give most of the fish away. I wouldn't give it to people to eat if it were poisoned.

"I tell 'em to put a little batter on it and fry it in a low heat so it won't burn."

What bothers Jake most is that the pier has not been restored since winter storms three years ago tore away 400 feet jutting into the ocean.

"They're always moaning about money," he said. "Why don't they fix the damned thing and put it out there where it was? Then we'd catch fish . That's the trouble," he added thoughtfully. "They don't care. No one cares."

I wondered. Do they care? Do they really care? Not just about the pier. About the acid rain, the polluted air, the poisoned sea. Human priorities are ranked according to cost. Posterity is without measure and therefore lacks position on the chart. Tomorrow is a dream. Chemistry is real.

Jake was still grumbling about the pier when I left. A woman with three young boys had been standing to one side, listening. As I passed, she smiled faintly and said, "What are they doing to us?" "I wish I knew," I said.

Morning was in full blossom. The fog was burning away. Santa Monica bay glistened in the sunlight.

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