The other night I was at a dinner party where salmon was being served. I mentioned that I didn’t feel it was safe to eat fish any more, and the host immediately responded, “That could be the case with any animal you eat.” Well, it could be, but it’s not. There are not the same health risks involved with fish as with cows, chickens or pigs. Studies of the environments of those other animals have not returned data quite as distressing as recent analyses of US waters.
In my home state, Maryland, more than two dozen rivers and streams are on the “impaired waters” list – unsafe for swimming and in need of cleaning. Fortunately Maryland, a stretch of land still graced with plenty of beautiful green spaces and bodies of water, has been proactive in monitoring and restoring its waters – although critics say that those systems are severely flawed due to lack of resources and enforcement. The state government has even published this report cataloguing the fish in the region and the level of risk involved in their consumption.
But the mere presence of that report raises an important question: how unsafe is unsafe? How much broken glass would you allow your daughter or son to ingest? Mercury, E. coli and PCBs (essentially residual compounds of coolants) are no safer. So while the Fish Advisory Table is lovely and informative, with its adorable drawings of cartoon characters reminding us to “eat different kinds of fish!”, we also learn that certain fish from places like the Baltimore Harbor, the Potomac River and the entire Maryland seaboard are to be avoided altogether.
Which brings me to the following question: how can one water zone be totally safe while another zone is polluted, when everything in the ecosystem is linked together? One creek empties into a stream, that stream flows into a river, the river flows out to sea. The idea that these pollutants can be fully contained seems far-fetched.
Another piece of advice given is to “trim away skin and fat”. I have never heard this before, and it sounds like bull to me. Yet there is an entire page devoted to preparing and cooking the fish in ways that allow the potentially PCB-contaminated fat to drain away. Tasty! Can I have the bleach vinaigrette with that?
And who screwed up the water supply in Maryland? The New York Times has this trusty map detailing the offenders, all 2,800 of them. Yep, that many.
Look, I grew up in this place, swimming in whatever water I could find, going fishing with my Dad and frying up our catch, skin, fat and all, once we got home. Sunday crab feasts, fried catfish sandwiches on Georgia Avenue, oyster shucking contests down in Charles County, fried clams at the Ocean City boardwalk – fishing culture was always a part of my life. That time is gone. If I swim in those same waters now, I might not survive it. The Baltimore Sun pointed out in April that “the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population has bounced back from dangerously low levels” that qualified as a federal disaster and necessitated a long and detailed repopulation effort. Some fish have absorbed so much toxic material that they are not only unfit for eating, they are destined to mutate and possibly to become extinct.
The news from other areas is no better. Thanks to BP, Corexit is now making its way into the food chain. The FDA and NOAA are currently performing chemical tests on Gulf seafood, having already proclaimed them safe for consumption without weighing the Corexit issue. The chemical tests are an important step, because previous tests have simply entailed the scientists’ using their noses and tongues to detect an odor or taste of oil in seafood samples, a technique more suited to a 5th-grade science fair.
This isn’t just about oil or Corexit; there is a wealth of other chemicals that have already found their way into the water, and therefore into the flesh and organs of fish that are consumed on a daily basis around the world. And across the Atlantic, a strain of the herpes virus has begun to decimate oyster populations in France and Britain. While the herpes is not directly transmissible to humans, it nonetheless renders the oysters unfit for consumption and is a death sentence for them.
I don’t have kids yet, and I am hoping that will happen, so perhaps in the meantime our wonderful scientists and public servants and activists and regular people can band together and get the water back into shape so that I can carry on those family traditions from 25 years ago.
Until then, let’s give the fish a break and stop taking unnecessary chances with our health just because our taste buds like it. Women and children are especially vulnerable to the toxins in fish, so I propose for them - and for any of you gentlemen too - a voluntary moratorium on the consumption of fish. What if, every time you wanted to eat a piece of fish, you instead used that energy to call your local government to encourage them to clean up the toxic chemicals from our local waters?
Looking at the events in the Gulf of Mexico, it is evident that the 21st century will require a lot of flexibility and new ideas. Staying rooted in old traditions, as things fall apart before our very eyes, will not lead to the success of humanity or of the Earth as a whole. There is still time to heal what was damaged. Start today. Make the sacrifice and put pressure on those in power to do the right thing.