In response to our advocacy efforts to reduce pollution in Bay fish over a decade ago, a local water agency informed us that there was “no evidence of subsistence fishing in the Bay Area.” This came as a surprise – on patrols, Baykeeper’s staff and skippers regularly saw fisherfolk along the shoreline, catching a meal from the Bay.
The agency’s failure to recognize subsistence fishers wasn’t simply a harmless oversight. It had real-life implications for human and environmental health.
For many people in the Bay Area, fishing isn’t a hobby. It’s an important source of food and, for many, a sacred cultural tradition. Tribal and subsistence anglers eat Bay fish in greater quantities than recreational and commercial consumers. That means the more frequent fishers and their families—including children—are being exposed to higher levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxic contaminants. And they represent some of the Bay Area’s most underserved communities – Indigenous and other people of color, the homeless, and non-English speakers – who may be experiencing food insecurity or have trouble translating shoreline warning signs.
This particular Bay pollution problem first dates back to the Gold Rush, when mining leached heavy metals into the Bay’s watershed. Industrial operations along the Bay continue to release a regular stream of contaminants, from oil to newer pollutants like PFAS. The plankton and fish living in the Bay are exposed to all of these long-lasting contaminants buried in the sediment, which work their way up the food chain. PCBs and mercury, in particular, are harmful to human health. PCBs can cause cancer and mercury exposure can lead to learning disabilities, heart disease, and diabetes, among other conditions. The Bay’s striped bass, for example, are nearly too toxic to be eaten by children and women of reproductive age, even in small quantities.
So Baykeeper and our partners at Clean Water Action and the California Indian Environmental Alliance advocated for the local water agency to prioritize the needs of Tribal and subsistence fishers. And our decades-long advocacy has finally succeeded! Just last month, the agency committed to recognize and prioritize the health of Tribal and subsistence fishers in future Bay pollution reduction plans.
We’re hopeful this commitment is the first step on the path to long-term solutions. Some parts of the country have already forced the polluters responsible to conduct extensive sediment cleanups to remove heavy metals and other contaminants from their watershed. That hasn’t happened here in the Bay Area—yet. But the agency’s recent move could be a turning point. Baykeeper will keep up the pressure until these toxic hotspots—both old and new—no longer harm the people who catch their daily meals from the Bay.
Photo: Lance Shields, Flickr/CC