Fishers and their families at risk from polluted fish

Join the Environmental Health Coalition as they ask the Regional Board to clean up the San Diego Bay.

provided by the Environmental Health Coalition


he consumption of fish from San Diego Bay is prevalent among the families of fishers from low-income communities of color of San Diego; that puts them at a high risk of exposure to contamination. This is one of the major findings of a survey of pier fishers done by EHC during the winter and spring of 2004. At an upcoming meeting of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, EHC will demand that they order the shipyards to clean up toxic sediments in San Diego Bay to protect the health of these fishers.

    That fish from San Diego Bay are contaminated has been documented in numerous studies. Sediments in the bay have also been shown to be polluted. In a 1990 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), San Diego Bay was rated as one of the most contaminated urbanized coastal areas in the nation. What has been missing is evidence that people are consuming fish in quantities that could damage their health. More than 100 fishers were surveyed at the Chula Vista Pier, Pepper Park Pier in National City, and the Convention Center Pier in San Diego. According to the survey:

  • 96% of the fishers were Filipino or Latino
  • 83% were residents of west Chula Vista, National City or Barrio Logan
  • 61% of the fish caught were consumed by the fishers, their families or friends
  • 35% fed the fish to their children
  • 31% fished at least weekly and 25% fished daily (4 to 7 times a week)

    What the fishers and their families may not know is that, along with their plate of freshly caught fish, they are being exposed to lead, PCBs, copper, mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemicals. A 1990 study, San Diego Bay Fish Health Risk Study, states that health risks to fish consumers could be significant if fish were to be consumed at subsistence rates of 165 grams per day. According to EHC survey results, fish consumption in these communities may well be at this higher subsistence level.

    The diverse population of fishers surveyed also demonstrated that people are eating parts of the fish other than the fillets (which is the part of the fish typically analyzed for fish consumption studies); in some cases, the fish is eaten whole. This is of particular importance because contaminants can concentrate in the skin, fat, and internal organs. Additionally, the cooking methods that were most mentioned in the survey were frying and stewing, methods that remove less contaminants from the fish than baking or broiling.

    The survey was intended to sample the residents of EHC communities and it is not meant to represent all of the San Diego Bay fishers. The survey clearly shows that the frequency of fishing and of fish eating in our pier fishing population is very different than that of the average person used in many studies. The interest of these populations needs to be taken into account in decisions that impact their health. You can view the full report on the pier fishers survey at or to request a copy, contact Sonia Rodriguez at (619) 474-0220, by email at

Contaminated sediments lead to contaminated fish


    The contamination of the fish in San Diego Bay is the direct result of sediment and water contamination. A key polluting source, San Diego shipyards like Southwest Marine and NASSCO, who for more than 20 years have been illegally dumping wastes into San Diego Bay, are now on the hook for cleanup. In 2001, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) ordered the shipyards to perform sediment sampling in order to establish cleanup levels. Now, consultants for the shipyards have developed a plan that proposes leaving all of the contaminated sediments in the Bay and requires no cleanup at all. If this happens, it would put the people who fish from the bay and the wildlife in jeopardy for years to come.

    EHC, along with the San Diego Bay Council and Assemblymember Lori Saldaña from the 76th Assembly District, is urging the Regional Board to direct the shipyards responsible for the contamination of the Bay to remove more than 1.2 million tons of toxic sediments to protect human health and the environment.

    Furthermore, EHC will ask the Regional Board to protect the subpopulations most affected by the contamination of the Bay when making all decisions regarding cleanup, remediation, and permitting of additional discharges to the bay.

    “I agree with the EHC report: it’s time to move forward and safeguard our bay, improve water quality, and protect the health of everyone who lives and visits there” said Saldaña, a long time clean water advocate for the San Diego region. “Together, we will create programs that mitigate the harm done to the bay, and protect everyone who uses it for recreation and sustenance,” she added.

    The key actions that we are recommending the Regional Board and other regulators to take are as follows:

  1. Consider the environmental justice impacts in decision-making and implement precaution in all permitting and regulatory decisions.
  2. Establish protective clean up levels for remediation of toxic sediments in San Diego Bay and protective sediment quality objectives for the State.
  3. Revise the Fish Consumption Warning for San Diego Bay based on higher consumption levels.
  4. Update and replace fish warning signs to include Tagalog.
  5. The Department of Toxic Substances Control, in conjunction with the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, should initiate an outreach and education program to educate fishers of the Bay of the risks of consuming Bay fish and some means to reduce the risks.

Hold the Regional Board Accountable

    The mission of the State and Regional Water Quality Control Boards is to preserve, enhance and restore the quality of California's water resources, and ensure their proper allocation and efficient use for the benefit of present and future generations. The Regional Board will provide a tremendous benefit to the public by implementing the spirit of its mission and the letter of the laws that it enforces and establish protective clean up limits for San Diego Bay.

    There is no other way.

  • What:San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing on sediment clean up levels.
  • When:The tentative date set is June 8, 2005.
  • Where:The hearing will be at the Regional Board’s offices located at 9174 Sky Park Court, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92123.

    We will need your support for a clean, healthy bay, so plan on attending this meeting to make your voice heard.

    To keep informed about the date of the hearing please visit and look for our Clean Bay Campaign section.

    Also sign up to receive our email Action Alerts and regular updates on issues of your interest.