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Is Your Fish Safe to Eat? Why Warnings May Not Be Reaching the People Most at Risk

People of color eat a lot of locally-caught fish for economic and cultural reasons. And yet they are the least likely to be aware of the risks because state efforts to warn anglers fail to reach many minority and low-income populations.

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In California alone,  state officials list nearly 70 different advisories for lakes, rivers and bays. In San Francisco Bay, for example, special advisories are in place for American shad, Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, striped bass, white sturgeon and mussels.

Critics say that many of the advisories are so complex that, language barriers aside, they are difficult to understand.

“I have a Ph.D. and I don’t understand it,” said Maria Powell of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, an advocacy group.

Along Wisconsin’s Monona Bay one day this summer, a number of anglers – predominantly black – displayed a divergent understanding of the risks posed by chemicals in the fish, including mercury and industrial compounds called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Both are linked to neurological problems, and PCBs are carcinogens.

Mackey, a self-employed businessman, said he grew up in a family that fished regularly in the South because it was inexpensive and they liked the fresh food. He said he had never heard of a  state advisory that recommends that people eat only one fish meal per month for most species caught in the bay. It also advises women of child-bearing age and children to avoid eating all fish caught there.

Signs along the shore warning of the risks have been largely absent for several years, anglers said.

“I am not aware of any advisories,” said Mackey, who often shares his bounty with friends and family. “I just assumed it would be safe to eat.”

African Americans Gene and Janis Watson were both aware of the advisory but said they planned to eat the blue gill they caught. “I like to deep fry it,” Janis Watson said.

Along the polluted 18-Mile Creek in upstate New York, migrant farm worker Oscar Puente said he fishes to put food on his family’s table – even though a state advisory warns against consuming any fish there.

“I need to feed my family,” Puente said. Asked if he was aware of an advisory, Puente said, “The water is clean so the fish is okay.”

Powell said the lack of awareness is typical of many minority populations that fish in the Great Lakes region.

“It’s not surprising that a great many people have never seen those advisories,” she said. “This is a classic environmental justice issue.”

Many experts agree that cultural mores or economic necessity make it difficult to change attitudes about fish consumption.

“For some, fishing is a necessity and not a sport. If you need to put food on the table, or if your heritage is tied up with fishing, education can only go so far,” said Andria Ventura of California’s Clean Water Action.

Native Americans, such as the Mohawk in upstate New York and the Yakama and Nez Perce in the Columbia River basin, rely heavily on a diet of salmon, trout and other fish that are contaminated with PCBs, dioxins and other chemicals.

Immigrants from Southeast Asia also may be at higher risk because many are subsistence fishers, said Christina Medina of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif. For example,  fishing is an important aspect of the Hmong heritage.

“Fishing in a local lake is also an educational opportunity to passing on the fishing skills to their children or grandchildren while spending precious time together. Fishing also takes a lot of their stresses away. It reminds them of the past, how they used to fish in Laos,” said Kazoua Moua, a member of the Hmong community in Madison.

Language barriers and financial problems hamper efforts to warn anglers. For a nationwide advisory about mercury in fish, the EPA and Food and Drug Administration have translated their message into Spanish, Hmong, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Cambodian and Korean. But some state agencies rely on brochures and signs in English, and website warnings may be ineffective for those who lack computer access.

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