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Fish Tainted by Pollution Being Sold, Study Finds

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

A popular fish sold in Asian markets in Los Angeles and Orange counties contains excessive amounts of the hazardous chemicals DDT and PCBs, a sign that state and federal officials are failing to protect consumers from contamination, according to a study released Wednesday by the environmental group Heal the Bay.

Tests by the Santa Monica-based group show highly contaminated white croaker is still being purchased and eaten by people, even though commercial catch of the fish has been illegal since 1990 in the severely polluted near-shore waters of the Palos Verdes shelf.

“These findings are extremely relevant and astounding to the people who consume this fish on a regular basis,” said Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold. “The public does not know that this fish is highly contaminated.”

Known to consumers as kingfish, the fish is sold almost exclusively in Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean communities. It is popular for its low price, about $1.50 per pound, and its taste.

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Of 132 kingfish samples bought at Los Angeles and Orange County markets, 84% exceeded the amount of the pesticide DDT that state health officials say poses an acceptable cancer risk, and 26% exceeded the amount of PCBs, according to Heal the Bay’s report. The worst chemical concentrations were found in fish sold in Westminster, Garden Grove and Gardena.

The source of the contaminated fish is unknown, but Gold said they were probably caught off the Palos Verdes shelf or Los Angeles Harbor in or near the state’s “no take” zone for croaker. Gold said the rule is poorly enforced by the California Department of Fish and Game, and that federal and state health officials do not test the fish that are caught or sold.

Lt. Martin Maytorena, a Fish and Game wildlife protection investigator, said the law restricting croaker fishing is “extremely difficult to enforce. It’s my personal opinion that it is written in a way that no one understands it.”

But he said “we’re doing all within our capacity,” given current laws and staffing.

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Banned in the United States in the 1970s, the pesticide DDT and industrial compounds known as PCBs are two of the most hazardous and persistent pollutants in the environment. They have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and neurological and reproductive problems, especially among children exposed in the womb when mothers regularly eat contaminated fish.

The group’s study is the first to test croaker or kingfish sold in stores, even though state and federal authorities have known for years that the fish often contains DDT and PCBs due to a decades-old chemical deposit surrounding Los Angeles County’s sewage outfall.

The world’s largest DDT deposit--about 100 tons--sprawls across 27 square miles of the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Montrose Chemical Corp., which manufactured the pesticide at a plant near Torrance from 1947 through 1971, flushed waste into county sewers.

Because croaker do not migrate and they feed in near-shore bottom sediments, their tissues contain large amounts of the toxic compounds. Other fish caught in the area are not believed to pose a high health risk.

In September and October, Heal the Bay purchased 270 kingfish from markets in Monterey Park, Redondo Beach, Gardena, Westminster, Garden Grove and the Chinatown and Koreatown areas of Los Angeles.

Woo “Toby” Hur, community services director at the Korean Youth and Community Center in Los Angeles, said his group will advise people to stop buying the fish, which he said is regularly or occasionally eaten by nearly everyone in Asian communities.

“I expect there will be a great deal of resistance from the markets. This is a big business for them,” he said. But once word spreads about the cancer threat, he said “people will shun it. There are certainly other fish people can turn to.”

The worst single fish, bought at a Gardena market, contained more than 32 parts per million of DDT--more than 300 times the amount considered an acceptable human cancer risk under state and federal guidelines. One of every 420 people who regularly eat fish containing as much DDT as the one at the Gardena store are likely to contract cancer, according to the study.

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Fish and Game officials say the contaminated fish doesn’t necessarily come from the no-take zone, because most croaker is caught further south, off Orange County. Patrol Capt. Jerry Spansill said Fish and Game wardens inspect fishing boats but there are no targeted efforts for croaker because only 12 wardens enforce all state fishery and wildlife laws in Los Angeles County. Heal the Bay urged the state to pass a bill, written by Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), banning sale of croaker caught off Los Angeles and Orange counties. The Senate approved the bill in a 28-5 vote Wednesday; the Assembly takes it up next.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Off Limits

White croaker, sold as kingfish in some Asian markets, may not be taken from waters off the Palos Verdes Peninsula because of DDT and PCBs contamination. To report catches or sale, call(888) 334-2258.


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