Sure we're going to eat these croakers. Fry them in cornmeal. They say they're contaminated. But they say everything is contaminated. If you didn't eat everything they say is contaminated, you wouldn't eat much of anything. If you eat too many eggs, you die of cholesterol. No pork. No croakers. No watermelon. They say everything has got DDT. Is that what's in the watermelon, too? --Air Force Sgt. Gerald Smith, fisherman on Cabrillo Beach Pier.
Gerald Smith and others fishing the harbors of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Monica have read the posted warning signs about polluted fish, but they keep right on fishing and taking their catches home for dinner.
This week most of the fishermen seemed more concerned about pesticide-tainted watermelons than the possibility of poisonous fish.
"They took away the watermelons," said Smith, leaning on the railing at the Cabrillo Beach pier, one of the fishing areas designated as contaminated by the state Department of Health Services. "But they just say the croakers are contaminated. I haven't been fishing here for about four years. I was eating croakers here then, and there's nothing wrong with me."
After the unprecedented watermelon recall this week because a reported 149 people across the state suffered food poisoning from watermelons that contained traces of the toxic pesticide aldicarb, California agriculture officials, with the blessing of those from the state health department, demanded that all watermelons in stock in warehouses, stores and restaurants be destroyed.
So far, the California Department of Health Services only has posted warning signs to the fishing public in the designated harbor areas. The signs went up in April.
In June, California health director Kenneth Kizer announced the formation of a task force on the matter, composed of representatives from eight different agencies, to do more testing on the fish and to study what the health risks are to humans and what solutions might be found.
Preliminary reports from the task force are expected within six months.
"What we are looking at is a long-term risk for ingestion of the fish, given the chemicals that are being found in them," said Dr. Maridee Gregory, the state department of health's acting deputy director for public health. "That might result in cases of cancer down the line. It's more problematic when you're dealing with food because everyone's food habits are so different. It's not like air that everyone breathes. And we don't know that every fish has this problem, either."
Birth Defects Possible
On a short-term basis, the health department recommends that pregnant women not eat the fish from the designated areas of contamination. Dr. Gregory said that eating such fish could be hazardous to the health of pregnant women "because agents that tend to cause cancer also tend to cause birth defects."
Although samples of fish have been found to contain DDT and PCB contamination, Gregory said that there have been no reports of people getting sick from eating fish caught in the targeted areas.
"There is every indication that this is going to be a problem of concern during the next decade and beyond," said Gregory.
'Close the Pier'
"If they're serious, then they should close the pier down and not sell bait," Smith said. "If you're not supposed to fish, the pier should be closed. But just look. There's a whole pier of guys catching fish, croakers, perch, halibut."
The current health department signs on designated piers recommend: (1) that the public not eat white croakers because they have "trace amounts of the chemicals DDT and PCB in their tissue"; (2) "no eating of any fish caught near White's Point in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach Harbor or the Cabrillo Pier in Los Angeles Harbor."
Health officials also included in their published guidelines an additional recommendation: that the public, particularly young children, pregnant women and women who are nursing, eat no more than one meal per month of any local sport fish.
Smith, on leave from Ellsworth AFB in Aberdeen, S.D., had just baited his hook with a fresh anchovy and dropped his line into the water. He gestured toward a plastic bucket of water next to him. It was filled with 10 small white croakers, or tomcods, that he, his wife, Carol, and his half-brother, Gene Brown of Compton, had caught by late afternoon.
"These croakers look pretty young and healthy," he said. "The contamination didn't kill them. Besides, how can you say a fish is contaminated in one area, and not another? How can you know the fish stay here? What if they swim here from someplace else or from here to someplace else?"
Farther out toward the end of the Cabrillo pier, Grace Moore and Damy Hapayan of Lomita also were fishing with fresh anchovies that they bought at Ron's bait shop on the pier that afternoon. So far, they hadn't caught anything, but didn't seem to mind.
'Everything Is Contaminated'