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Prudent advice


Tuesday morning I attended a meeting of the North Coast Business Leaders Roundtable, a loosely knit group that convenes to discuss economic issues and public policy. This week the topic was the fishing industry.

Ken Bates of the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association, which represents local commercial hook-and-line fishermen, talked about the need to be vigilant in making sure that the city maintains adequate workspace for the local fleet on the newly beautified Eureka waterfront. He said his former home of San Pedro got so carried away with boutiques and restaurants that there was little room left for a real boat.

Peter Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, representing the trawlers from Morro Bay to Bellingham, Wash., told the group his industry's biggest challenge today is how to reduce the number of vessels. There are far too many boats chasing far too few fish, he said. (See the Journal July 18 report on groundfish, "Deep trouble" )

Susan McBride, Humboldt County's marine adviser who is employed by the University of California, reported on aquaculture. In Humboldt Bay, aquaculture means oysters, a $2 million-a-year industry. McBride said water quality is the oyster growers' main concern and the reason the mollusks are tested weekly for organic contaminants.

Recent "press reports" of chemical contamination -- dioxin -- being found in oysters were of concern to the industry, she said, because the public has a keen interest in food safety issues. However, the amounts of dioxin found were "low ... less than in a glass of milk or a piece of beef," according to a recent report, she said.

It is true that dioxin is found in many other foods we consume regularly. But the levels of dioxin found may not be quite as harmless as indicated in the report -- which, by the way, was paid for by Sierra Pacific Industries, a timber company.

Here is what we know so far:

Dioxin was found in every oyster sample at levels between 0.8 and 4.3 parts per trillion.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists ingestion of 25 parts per trillion of dioxin as "a level of concern." However, that information is 21 years old. A newer standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency recommends against consuming more than 1.2 parts per trillion per month from eating fish.

The glass-of-milk comment is an example of how to fib with statistics. The reports concludes that on average people get more dioxin from eating eggs, milk and beef than they do from eating Humboldt Bay oysters. It assumes that every American eats three oysters a year and therefore, no problem. But the fact is that 70, 80 perhaps 90 percent or more of Americans eat no oysters at all and the rest of us eat a lot of them.

This is a story we will be following. It is really up to state health officials now to determine whether a health hazard exists and whether to issue a health advisory. But in the meantime, Marc Lappe, a toxicologist who runs a consulting firm called the Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala, Calif., recommends adult males eat no more than six Humboldt Bay oysters a month and pregnant women may want to skip them altogether.

Until we know more, it may be prudent advice.



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