By Amy Taxin
The Associated Press
WESTMINSTER, California (AP) — John Fallan’s trained eye scans rows of iceboxes brimming with tiger fish and shrimp in a Vietnamese supermarket, searching for one pesky fish that threatens the health of seafood lovers.
Authorities said the white croaker has become a popular catch in local Asian communities. But when reeled in off a stretch of California’s coastline southwest of Los Angeles, the fish was laced with cancer-causing toxins derived from decades of chemical dumps near the scenic shore.
Fallan leads a team of wardens from the California Department of Fish and Game to hunt down the white croaker on fishing piers, landings, and in Vietnamese and Chinese markets across Southern California, where in recent years the silvery, fatty fish could be found in droves.
“It’s a massive effort,” said Fallan, a lieutenant specialist with the department. “We can’t keep up with all these markets, restaurants, and retailers.”
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Montrose Chemical Corp. — the world’s largest producer of DDT — and other companies released pesticide into sewers that emptied into the Pacific Ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Other companies discharged chemical compounds known as PCBs.
Federal and state government agencies sued them in 1990, and $140 million in settlements is currently being used to find the fish and reduce the effects of the pollution.
Eating white croaker poses potential harm to humans because the fish doesn’t metabolize pollutants like other fish off Southern California’s coast, said Michael Franklin, a marine biology professor at California State University, Northridge.
While no cancer cases have been directly linked to its consumption, regularly eating the fish off the Palos Verdes Peninsula carries 60 times the cancer risk of eating rockfish or kelp bass from the same area, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
While California banned commercial fishing of white croaker stretching three miles out from the peninsula in 1990, the fish can be found farther to the north and south. However, there is no way to tell the difference between a polluted fish and a clean fish without testing it.
Consequently, authorities are urging consumers to steer clear of the white croaker.
For years, the fish didn’t have much of a market and was used as bait. However, it became more popular as the region’s Asian population grew, experts said. The EPA focused on the Vietnamese and Chinese communities after a study showed their fish-eating habits put them at higher risk for toxin exposure.
Last year, the EPA started enlisting wardens and health inspectors in Los Angeles and Orange County to check markets and bring back suspicious samples of the fish for testing. It recruited community groups to teach families how to cook fish in ways that would reduce their exposure to the chemicals.
The groups are urging consumers to use only the fish fillet, and to steam fish so the fat drips out, and with it, the toxins.
Studies show chemical concentrations are 10 times higher in the whole fish than just the fillet, said Sharon Lin, an EPA remedial project manager who oversees the outreach efforts on fish consumption.
Trying to change people’s routine behavior comes up against age-old customs, such as using fish heads to flavor soup.
“A lot of people think the fish head is the tastiest part in a soup,” Lin said. “It is really hard to change that.”
Vietnamese community groups in Orange County began holding workshops last year at health clinics and beauty schools, hoping to target young women of childbearing age who are especially vulnerable to the toxins.
“Back in Vietnam, it is a poor country so they want to use everything,” said Tiffany Nguyen, branch manager in Orange County for Boat People SOS, a Vietnamese-American organization that has been conducting some of the workshops.
“In America, there’s more abundance of food so they’re more picky as to what to eat.”
Chinese immigrants in San Gabriel, a small city northeast of Los Angeles, launched similar outreach programs this year.
Winston Huang, a 45-year-old self-professed health buff, appeared anxious about his eating habits after a community educator met with him in the waiting room of a Chinese health clinic.
“I will notice which kind of fish I’m eating,” he said afterward.
Authorities said landing receipts filed by commercial fisherman show 30,000 pounds (14,000 kilograms) of white croaker are caught every year in accepted zones. Since white croaker is commonly caught and doesn’t fetch a high price, authorities believe the fish is not shipped outside Southern California.
Besides teaching fishermen, shopkeepers, and consumers to shun the white croaker, authorities plan to lay sediment over the 110 tons of DDT and 10 tons of PCBs still found off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. But the project will take several years and it will take even longer for the white croaker to emerge clean, Lin said.
Meanwhile, wardens say they have seen relatively few specimens in Asian markets that were teeming with white croaker a few years ago. To date, wardens and health inspectors have taken only 25 fish for lab testing. No results are available yet.
Authorities hope that seafood market managers drop white croaker from their inventory altogether. In Orange County’s Little Saigon neighborhood, several managers said they no longer carried the fish. One said a health inspector had warned him not to sell it.
But inspectors aren’t too confident, noting the steady number of landings mean the fish are still out there and likely ending up on someone’s plate.
“They’re being sold at some places,” Fallan said. “We just haven’t found them yet.” ♦