Fishing in city waterways

Q. Watching people fishing from piers in San Francisco Bay, I know a lot of them are doing it not for sport but because they want—or need—free fish. Fishing in public waterways is a fairly easy way to get free protein, but is it safe?
-  Justin, CA

A. Hoisting free meals—still alive and flipping—out of your urban backyard seems like a carnivore scavenger's dream. But weigh the pros—protein, calcium, iodine, Omega-3s, Vitamins A and D—against the cons: a future in which your hands and legs won't obey you properly and you can't remember anymore that you are, in fact, Justin from California.

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But Environmental Defense marine scientist Timothy Fitzgerald says that waterways near densely populated urban areas (San Fran, LA, DC, NYC) definitely contain more contaminants. "Many people," Fitzgerald says, "take the fish-is-good-for-you message as all-or-nothing, when actually the answer is somewhere in the middle." Mercury and PCBs won't make you sick overnight the way a bad oyster will, says Fitzgerald, but the long-term neurological effects of eating too much contaminated fish can include impaired motor function and memory. Creepy stuff. Some anglers know the risks and ignore them, either for love of the sport or from sheer need; others don't know the risks…yet. To spread the word, California posts its advisories in English, Cambodian, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Vietnamese, and Portuguese.

So as a general rule, try to stay away from fish caught near urban centers, also from larger species such as swordfish, shark, marlin, and bluefin tuna. No matter where they’re caught, these bigger fish accumulate more contaminants because they’re higher up on the food chain. Want to know more? The health departments of individual states issue fish advisories and status reports; in your case, California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment posts a map indicating which contaminants are most concentrated where. San Francisco Bay has hazardous mercury and PCB levels, for example, but fish in Los Angeles and you'll dodge the PCBs, keep the mercury, and add DDT to the toxic mix. Bait your hook accordingly.

- Anneli Rufus & Kristan Lawson

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