It’s a crisp Sunday afternoon and the smell of fried fish permeates the air as 10 Cambodian families gather to sell the catch of the day. These families are, in many cases, dependent on fishing as a means of survival, but their way of life is endangered by the threat of mercury poisoning in the fish they consume on a daily basis.
Savong Lam, Executive Director of United Cambodian Families, is aware of the danger these people are facing.
“A lot of them will tell you that they only fish for exercise, or they only fish once or twice a month, but that’s not true,” Lam said. “I know that for many this is their main source of food since they live on a very low fixed income.”
Global mercury pollution is caused primarily by waste from burning fossil fuels and certain manufacturing processes, but in California the major cause is abandoned gold mines from 150 years ago. The three worst contamination areas in Yolo County are Cache Creek, Lisbon Slough and Lake Berryessa.
Mercury becomes a major hazard when it’s converted into methylmercury with the help of bacteria living in the anoxic mud at the bottom of slow-moving creeks and rivers, ponds and lakes. The two most widely studied effects of methylmercury are heart disease and neurological damage to fetuses.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, average levels of mercury in humans are 0 to 20 ppm. Physical effects of poisoning show up at around 200 ppm, and if enough mercury enters the bloodstream, it can be fatal. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include headaches, tremors and slow learning in children, but the only way to know for sure is a blood test. There is no cure for mercury poisoning.
According to the Food and Drug Administration website, almost all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury. However, the larger fish that are popular with anglers also tend to have higher mercury levels, therefore the FDA advises against the consumption of large fish like king mackerel, shark and swordfish.
Fishing is not just a means of obtaining food. For many people it’s a way of spiritual healing. Naey Sarith escaped to Thailand from Cambodia in 1979 during the Khmer Rouge regime. She spent time in a refugee camp in the Philippines before landing in Texas as a refugee. From there she eventually got in touch with family friends in Stockton and moved to California, where she has lived ever since with her eight children.
Sarith said fishing is a way of reconnecting with her lost heritage and that she will not let the threat of mercury deter her.
“I love it when the kids have a chance to bring me along,” she said. “It helps me leave hardships and heartaches behind. I don’t think mercury is a threat, I’ve been eating fish for a long time and I don’t see anything wrong with me.”
Sarith’s story is not unlike that of many other Cambodian immigrants. Lorn Nourn and Mach May depend on fish as their primary source of protein.
“Fishing is good exercise and it keeps us healthy,” Nourn said. “I don’t know much about mercury, but I’ve seen some signs warning me not to fish there so I go further out where the water is nice.”
UC Davis ecologist Fraser Shilling, who has worked in his field for 23 years said, “We’ve been aware of this problem for about the last 30 years. There has been very limited cleanup progress. Less than one percent of mines have been cleaned up and a lot of mercury is now in reservoirs, creeks and rivers. Once it’s entered a natural environment it’s a lot harder to clean up.”
Most of the education work on mercury contamination is now being done by community agencies like UCF, Todos Unidos and the Center for Ecological Health. If the government really invested in the cleanup it would take about 10 to 20 years to see measurable improvement, Shilling said.
UCF workers have set up regular classes to educate the community about mercury, but they haven’t been entirely successful.
“People understand the information and actively spread it, but they nonetheless continue to consume the fish. Since we can’t change their behavior we’re working on helping them feel more empowered to raise their voice and get the government to clean up the mercury,” Lam said.
The majority of the victims tend to be on the lower end of the economic spectrum, which means they’re easier to ignore.
“Your typical weekend warriors are not the victims here. The people fishing for subsistence are usually immigrants and poor. The government doesn’t tend to concern itself with poor people’s problems and that’s a fundamental flaw in the system,” Shilling said.
JANE TEIXEIRA can be reached at email@example.com.