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Sport fish contaminated along California's urban coastline

May 26, 2011 |  4:50 pm

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Mercury and PCBs contamination is widespread in sport fish in urban coastal waters across California, though mostly in moderate concentrations, a survey released Thursday by the state Water Board found.

Nineteen percent of the urban coastline sampled by researchers had fish with mercury in such high concentrations that they shouldn’t be eaten by young women and children. Fourteen percent of locations had similarly elevated levels of PCBs.

The findings are part of the largest statewide survey to date of contaminants in sport fish along the California coast. The report was based on the first year of a two-year survey, which examined more than 2,000 fish from threedozen species gathered in 2009 from waters near Los Angeles and San Francisco, including San Francisco Bay.

Researchers said the study highlights the health problem of lingering mercury, a poisonous metal that is found in fish globally, and PCBs, toxic chemicals the United States banned in the 1970s. Both substances continue to pose a risk to people who eat fish caught on the California coast because they can lead to nervous system damage and developmental problems in children and can cause cancer, liver damage and reproductive harm.

“Unfortunately, we're not seeing many areas that are totally clean,” said Jay Davis, a senior scientist for the San Francisco Estuary Institute and lead author of the study. But a catalog of where and in what fish the toxins abound should help anglers make better choices, he said. “With good information, people can reduce their exposure significantly.”

Sharks had some of the highest levels of mercury because of their unusual tendency to accumulate the contaminants in their flesh, researchers said. The most elevated concentrations of the pollutants were found in San Francisco Bay and San Diego Bay.

As for which species is the safest: Southern California anglers can be rest easy catching and eating chub mackerel because it had the lowest levels of contamination in the survey.

The results of the survey were used in part to help craft new fish consumption guidelinesissued earlier this week for anglers in San Francisco Bay -- the first update there by state health officials in 17 years. The advisory identifies shiner perch and other surf perches as unsafe to eat in any quantity and warns young women and children not to eat white sturgeon, striped bass and sharks caught in the bay.

The buildup of metals and other chemicals in fish is such a problem along the Southern California coast that health officials two years ago expanded the number of fish on the "do not eat" list from one to five species because of high levels of PCBs, mercury and the banned pesticide DDT.

Next year the state is expected to release the next portion of the survey: data on fish collected from the less populated central and north coasts. After that, researchers will show test results from fish in rivers and streams.

Related:

New report: Seafood in supermarkets is often mislabeled

On Southland piers, warning that more fish species are tainted

Marina del Rey halibut tournament returns with conservation in mind

--Tony Barboza

Photo: Amateur anglers on a 2008 excursion out of Marina del Rey. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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