A piece of conventional wisdom one is frequently reminded of in many popular political debates over the quality of our food is “you are what you eat.” Setting aside the gross simplification of an otherwise complex process, one can find a kernel of truth baked into a small morsel of our lexicon. While my contemporaries may beg otherwise, I cannot be adequately described as a boring meat pie with little to recommend it. Even so, I cannot escape some of the things I eat from becoming a distinct part of me and, it turns out, nor could they say the same of themselves and their dinner (if they could speak – to date, I have yet to knowingly ingest anything that could). When outlining the nature of the problem facing San Diego Bay (henceforth “the Bay”) among others, it is useful to keep this phrase nearby when considering all of the “downstream” effects one needs to fully encompass the problem of pollution in it. I will return to it frequently.
The larger problem, of course, is why this is even an issue to begin with. Knowing the seafood in the Bay is toxic, why are there still willing consumers? If a sign is posted that says “Bridge is out,” do we expect this same percentage of the population to try to drive across it regardless? As it turns out, this analogy breaks down if we allow ourselves to consider the possibility that some groups may be willing to drive cars at high speed over broken bridges and do so willingly. The comparison is crude but represents the prevailing mindset among those presented with the problem (Lecture). The short answer – some people really, really like to fish.
In reviewing the ecological problems faced by the Bay, I will follow a rather simple map. First, a discussion on the above-analogized process known as “bioaccumulation.” This will include the process by which digestive items – “toxins” for the purposes of this paper – travel from one trophic level to another as well as a discussion on the insertion point of these toxins into both the environment and subsequent local food supply. Finally, a review of what this means for human consumption followed by a meditation on why, despite the extensive knowledge of the process, people continue to willingly ingest this food regardless.
Before describing the journey through the various trophic levels, I will consider the process by which a loan toxin moves from the sea floor of the ocean to the stomach lining of your digestive tract. Toxins such as heavy metals, PCBs, and others can be absorbed into a host and it becomes bioaccumulation when it “achieves a level that exceed that in the water as a result of chemical uptake through all routes of chemical exposure (egs. Dietary absorption, transport across the respiratory surface, dermal absorption).” (Mishra, 1) Excerpted from the parenthetical, the phrase “transport across the respiratory surface” is an important component with a separate, related name; bioconcentration. Bioconcentration is a key piece that does not necessarily fit into the “you are what you eat” narrative at first. At any point along the trophic system there can be the emergence of a toxin that can be absorbed via the respiratory tract before the same toxin is hauled across the digestive tract of a predator that finds the tainted animal delicious. In what will likely be a leitmotif woven throughout this paper, one will often consider at any stop along the trophic system what it would take to just get x to stop eating toxic food y. While there will certainly be greater and greater levels of autonomy as the move to more and more intelligent consumers of toxic food continues, it is at the same time a lovely foreshadow of the problem with telling people to simply “eat something else.” Where our final stop on the system – human consumption of toxic seafood – radically deviates is the incorporation of “culture.”
The bioaccumulation process in the Bay begins when a local organism absorbs some chemical compound, benign or otherwise, and the substance hangs around rather than excretes. I will rely quite heavily on a foundational article by Bijesh Mishra of Kentucky State University for some definitive terms. There are a number of pathways for a compound to be sequestered – embedded somewhere within an inedible portion of the animal (as it grows), secreted through the digestive tract, or metabolized into energy. (Mishra, 2) However, the compounds discussed are toxic to humans (and other consumers) due almost exclusively to compounds that are “lithophilic” – increasing the bioaccumulation of these compounds, which “increases with increased lipid content in aquatic organisms.” (Mishra, 1) As the fat content on an animal grows (this generally increases as one moves up trophic levels), the more storage space for toxins is made available. Mishra further outlines a process known as “biomagnification” which states that the concentration of a contamination increases with successive trophic levels. (2)
An important consideration for the Bay is the relative concentration of polluted seafood within it. In the multi-agency 2013 report entitled “Regional Harbor Monitoring Program,” (RHMP) it was found that “SQO assessments determined that 72% of RHMP stations had unimpacted or likely unimpacted sediment conditions, and there were no exceedances of acute water quality thresholds at 81% of stations.” (Stransky et al. 6-1) The report goes on to say these statistics were not relative when assessing copper levels. The implication is that the vast majority of the pollution is found concentrated in a small number of sites with the subsequent implication that the shellfish communities are hit hardest. Areas with higher anthropogenic inputs of pollutants had “Elevated chemical concentrations in these regions of the harbors generally correlated well with impaired infaunal benthic communities.” (Stransky et al. 6-1) As indicated above, any animals that prey upon shellfish will themselves ingest that which the shellfish have bioconcentrated and the bioaccumulation food chain begins. The contaminants that pose the greatest risk to human health include PCBs, mercury, DDTs, and PCBEs with the two former being the most prevalent. DDTs, by comparison, pose the greatest risk to bird eggs. (Bay et al. iv)
The reason for a focus on this particular problem is the relative cost to the human population that relies upon the bay for its sustenance, entertainment, or otherwise. If humans continue to ingest seafood from the Bay, the consequences are quite damaging indeed. In a 2016 study, it was reported that consumption of the fish and shellfish “tissue can produce cancer and other illnesses if levels are extremely high or if consumption is continued over a long period.” (Anderson et al., 5) That same report goes on to say that such toxins have been measured directly in fish, lobsters, and mussels in the Bay. While the report also goes on to caution against the concentration of domoic acid and some paralytic poisons, it ultimately concludes these chemicals are not found in sufficiently high enough levels to warrant concern.
Having relayed that, I run up against the problem of dosage as the above “levels” of toxic food are frankly relative to the person consuming them. This concept is rather simple – if you eat more of a polluted item, you will have more of the pollution swimming around (not literally) in your gut. As no two Americans have the same diet when analyzed in portrait and no one American has the same diet when analyzed over time, the varying quantified levels of typed recommended consumption sprawl out across a page like a hellish landscape. It is important, then, to consider serving size when discussing these pollutants – which will be reconsidered when I discuss the final portion of this paper. Before then, I must square with this one basic point – humans who consume a lot of the seafood and consume it consistently over time are under greater health risk than those that do not. This is only complicated further by humans of various ages and sexes, which also change the dynamics of the allowable limits. It is not enough to say “one fish a day is safe to consume.” For the elderly or children or nursing mothers that number is inadequate. The end result has made for some rather ill-advised attempts to make simple-but-comprehensive charts that prove only to be complicated-and-useless eyesores or, inadvertently, potential advertisements for people unaware of the availability of fish in the bay. Indeed, in their study, Steinberg and Moore’s report “Southern California Coastal Water Research Project” (SCCWRP) noted that knowledge of advisories actually increased consumption. (48)
Which is where this paper journeys next - why the fish are consumed in the first place. Before tackling such a problem, it is worth revisiting Steinberg and Moore’s report, largely a follow-up set of surveys to previous work in the region. In it, they outline what types of fish are eaten and – more importantly for my purposes – by whom. This piece of the puzzle will serve adequately if we are to entertain reasons people continue to consume the fish despite the breadth of knowledge we have demonstrated above. The SCCWRP noted that “median consumption rates for Asians were significantly higher than all other ethnicities.” (iv) Relative to all other groups, most Asian communities have long maritime traditions with respect to their food sources. Without considering any economic impact factors (the same section of the report highlights the income level of most anglers – typically at or just above the federal poverty line), we can consider sociocultural factors and this helps shed considerable light on the nature of the continued consumption – the human connection with food (Lecture).
Even so, an ontological argument can be crafted and proven by analogy. Merely educating and warning the public has been, to a rather large extent, the most diffuse form of sickness prevention relative to the consumption of toxic fish. It has, as indicated above, largely been ineffective or has proven to be so over the course of the relative studies. A similar approach has been adopted in the tobacco industry and while it would appear to have worked, there seems to be an effective threshold. In a study of California’s “Tobacco Control Program,” it was found that while the state sped well ahead of the country in reducing cigarette consumption (measured in “packs per day”), the effect dropped off and ultimately became null with no or limited change over time. (Pierce et al. 893) Several factors are considered to blame but it is possible to find a correlation within the connection between person and food.
The phrase “comfort food” has its place in popular parlance and for good reason. When one has a particularly troubling day or sequence of days, they revert to those things that bring them great comfort. These comforts come in a variety of forms and are damaging or revitalizing to varying degrees. On any street, one can spot the older gentleman that prefers to have a stiff drink and a rocking chair, the couple that hashes things out with physical activity of some kind or another, or the young man that, emerging from his house wearing a hoodie and headphones, goes for a 3-mile run. While narcotics can easily enter into the conversation and frankly should given their addictive qualities and the tendency for people to turn to them in times most dire, another set of consumables is rarely considered and yet it is nearly universal among societies – those cookies that grandma used to bake. We can substitute “cookies” and “bake” with “fish” and “fry” if so inclined. There is an emotional connection with food that, like smokers who have grown dependent on the release of endorphins, we humans are willing to suffer a little down the road for the immense joy we can experience now. Given the relative effectiveness of some deterrents, however, it would appear that this desire to experience the most basic of pleasures is not static across people or time (indeed, no one is “born” an addict). In the smoking study, it is entirely possible that the percentage of the population willing to push through evidence for the sake of their habit is around the percentage the population has arrived at. We are left to consider this related effect in crafting a response to why people continue to fish out of the bay at such a higher relative rate. To put it in no uncertain terms – because, all things considered, they still want to.
Pollution in San Diego Bay is not defined by a poor smell, unattractive water color, or visibly dead marine life. Instead, the effects begin at the most basic level and intensify as they move up the trophic system before striking a blow to the health and well-being of a quaternary consumer. The process by which this occurs has many lines of origin across a wide variety of existing contaminants as well as older “legacy” contaminants. These contaminants stow away in the fatty deposits on seafood where they are consumed by the average Bay angler. The anglers are aware of this process (or at least the end result of it) and continue to fish despite the potential damage to their health. This is due in no small part to their own cultural heritage and the raw power of a good, home-cooked comfort meal. When we consider how to tackle this problem, it must be all-encompassing and not deliberately ostracize a group of people for the crime of being raised in a society where they were allowed to consume that which is laid waste to by outside sources.