People Eat Harbor Fish, Despite the Warnings : Bay Contamination Reportedly Poses a Long-Term Threat of Cancer and a Short-Term Threat of Birth Defects

Times Staff Writer

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'

"It's too hot in the house now anyway," Moore said. "We're here for fun on a hot day. But there are always people here. I don't think it (the fear of contaminated fish) bothers them. If it did, they wouldn't do it. But everything is contaminated these days. Now even the watermelon has gone flooey on us."

Said Hapayan: "They should put up signs and stop them from fishing if the fish makes them sick."

Hapayan said he had not noticed the health department's two warning signs at the beginning of the pier.

Little wonder. Someone had spray-painted gray paint over all the recommendations, making them almost impossible to read.

Maria Sepulveda of Boyle Heights had not seen the signs either, and she comes to Cabrillo every Tuesday afternoon to fish with her husband, Alfred, daughter, Christina, 8, and Alfred Jr., 4. Tuesday is Alfred Sepulveda's only day off from his job as a car salesman.

'We Didn't Get Sick'

"I'm the only one who eats fish," Maria Sepulveda said as she cleaned a bunch of white croakers under a water faucet on the pier. "Al Jr. will eat a few, but my husband and daughter don't. My husband only likes catching them. I give a few to my mother. We just put flour and salt on and fry them. We caught some last week, and we didn't get sick. I heard something before about the fish being contaminated, but I didn't know it was here. I don't know now whether to eat them or not."

Other fishermen said they had heard that they shouldn't be eating the white croaker, so they concentrated on catching other kinds of fish at Cabrillo, mostly halibut.

"Ninety percent of people don't eat the white croaker," said Dan Fink, a tackle salesman who travels between Santa Barbara and Newport Beach. "What the industry needs, though, is a true explanation of the facts."

Wayne Hansis arrived at Santa Monica Pier about 7:30 a.m. and waited for his fishing buddies. The group of about 12 men, most of them retired, have been fishing together off the pier almost daily for many years. Whether they have caught anything or not on a given day, they haul in their lines about 10:30 a.m. and repair to Jack's on the pier to have coffee and play gin rummy and/or cribbage.

Before the Santa Monica Pier was severely damaged in the winter storms of 1983, the regulars used to hold parties for birthdays and other special occasions on the lower part of the pier, sometimes play poker or take their small boats out of their boat lockers and fish up and down the surf just off the beach.

Sign in English, Spanish

Nowadays, the fishermen have to pass the Santa Monica Harbor patrol's yellow sign at the entrance to the pier. It reads, in English and Spanish: Eating fish caught in Santa Monica Bay may be harmful to your health because of contamination. You should not eat the fish called White Croaker, King Fish or Tom Cod.

Two additional warning signs from the health department are posted at the end of the pier where most of the people fish.

The signs don't particularly worry most of the longtime fishermen, but harbor patrolman Wayne Salkoski said that newcomers to the pier "are interested" and often ask about the contamination signs.

"They say the effects of DDT come 20 to 30 years later," said Hansis, who retired after tending the botanical gardens at UCLA for 25 years. "Why should I worry about that? For me that makes me 85 years old.

"I never did eat croaker," Hansis said. "It's too small. I started fishing here in '48, and my main forte is bonito. I like halibut, too.

"The white croakers feed off the bottom, and they're more likely to have contamination. The bonito, mackerel and halibut are surface, pelagic fish and migratory. They feed off the little fish that feed off the plankton."

A Fish Joke

Hansis grinned mischievously and said: "You know what I do if I catch poisonous fish? I trade them for watermelons."

His joke received a hearty laugh from his friends who were gathering along the railing, Jake Spitzer, Harry Barco, Paul Silhavy and Bob Carvel.

Spitzer, 75, is retired from McDonnell Douglas; Barco, 78, who has been fishing off this pier since 1939, is retired from the garment business.

Silhavy is a Santa Monica artist; Carvel runs his own custom silk screening and embroidery business.

"The only thing I eat that I catch off the Santa Monica Pier is halibut," said Carvel, who lives in Beverly Hills. "And I'm not worried about that. What concerns me more is that there are too many transients in Santa Monica now. I was panhandled five times on my way over this morning from the restaurant where I had breakfast. And it's only a few blocks."

Pier Not Repaired

What annoys Carvel, Hansis and the other regulars most is not the threat of contaminated fish, but the fact that the Santa Monica Pier is still not rebuilt after the 1983 storms.

"Why is this the only public pier in California not repaired since the storm?" Carvel said. "They've (the City of Santa Monica) got a commission, and they do all these studies. It's ridiculous. They've wasted so much time and money on studies and people's salaries that the taxpayers pay for. It really bugs me."

Hansis nodded his head in agreement and said: "They keep telling us they're going to finish it, but they don't. We lost 410 feet of pier. We don't even have a bait shop now, so we catch our own. And they haven't done anything. Now, if they'd finish it, extend it to where it was, we could really catch some fish."

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