Safe Bay-Delta Fishing and Cooking Action Project

Written by: Corey Chan

Have you ever visited a special place in the San Francisco Bay-Delta where people go fishing? If so, you may have seen some colorful and informative signs about which fish are the safest to catch and eat. This information depends on the location the fish is caught as well as your age and biological gender. These signs were created because some fish have higher concentrations of chemicals and pollutants in their bodies than other fish.

Many of the fourth and fifth grade students in Mrs. Moylan’s and Mrs. Allen’s classes at John Muir Elementary School in Antioch either eat, or know someone who eats, fish from the San Francisco Bay-Delta. After participating in the Watershed Action Program this school year with KIDS for the BAY Educator Corey Chan, students wanted to learn more about the fish in the delta and they chose our Safe Bay-Delta Fishing and Cooking Action Project. Not only would the students learn more about the local fish, they would also learn how to prepare and cook fish to remove as many toxins as possible.

During their classroom lessons with Ms. Corey, students learned about a very important topic called biomagnification, which explains how pollutants can pass through a food chain and lead to an increased concentration of pollutants in larger organisms. Students made connections to how this could impact human health and Mehar wondered, “If you eat too much of a fish can you get sick?” Learning more about how biomagnification of pollutants affects the food chain, Emily noted, “Since we are part of the food chain, more pollution in our bodies can end up making us sick.”

They also learned about some specific pollutants in the San Francisco Bay, including microplastics, mercury, and PCBs, and how they can negatively impact humans when consumed. Due to historical uses of pollutants, these chemicals are still found in our watershed and biomagnify in bay and delta food chains, eventually making it to our plate and into our bodies. To demonstrate how this occurs, the students went outside and took on the roles of anchovies, salmon, and humans. With small colored plastic links representing plankton and pollutants, the anchovies “swam” around the playground filling their cloth “bellies” with the plastic links. After more rounds where the salmon and humans each had an opportunity to catch prey, the class compared the stomach contents across each species and level of the food chain. “There aren’t too many chemicals in one stomach of an anchovy,” observed Jade, “And when you look at the stomach of a salmon, which is multiple anchovy stomachs, they have even more chemicals.” The students gave a drumroll as Ms. Corey emptied the contents of the human stomach, containing several initial anchovy and salmon stomachs. “The human stomach has the most pollutants!” the class shouted. “That shows biomagnification!” declared Orlando. 

Ms. Corey led an initial demonstration of how to safely prepare and cook delta fish to reduce the intake of toxins. The students watched and took notes, and then decided which parts of the demonstration they wanted to help lead for a younger buddy class of students. Many of the students wanted to be in the groups involved with preparing the fish. “I want to help make the sauce for the fish! I really liked helping during that part of your demonstration” shared Jade. As the students ate the fish prepared by Ms. Corey and student volunteers, Ariana shouted out, “My grandma has some competition. This is delicious!” When Ms. Corey told the class about how her family will claim parts of the head they consider delicacies, Valenzia added, “My grandma likes eating the eyeballs!” Over the course of the next two weeks, the students practiced the fish cooking demonstration on their own. When Ms. Corey at school for the students’ cooking demonstration, she could feel the excitement and nerves in the air.

The first groups began by introducing the purpose of the demonstration and sharing how many of the students and/or close family members and family friends go fishing and consume fish that is caught in the San Francisco Bay-Delta. “Pollution that has entered the water can get into the fish that we eat, and depending on the pollutant, can cause different issues in those that eat it,” noted Valenzia. Sharing the “Toxic Sites” poster, Gio informed everyone, “What is safe to eat depends upon the location caught in the bay and the type of fish. We will also be sharing how to prepare a fish so it is safest to eat.” 

The next groups explained some of the pollutants found in the bay and how they impact humans, in addition to how they biomagnify through bay food chains. 

“Due to past uses of pollutants like mercury and PCBs, these chemicals are still found in our watershed and biomagnify in bay and delta food chains. They eventually make it to our plate and into our bodies. Mercury came down through rivers to the San Francisco Bay entering our watershed during the gold rush.” 

-Zachary, Fifth grade student, John Muir Elementary School, Antioch, CA

Ebi then shared about the impact of PCBs and also provided a solution by adding that there are different ways to reduce and/or eliminate these pollutants from our meals. “Thankfully, we can consume less chemicals by buying or catching only certain types of fish from the bay and delta as well as preparing it a certain way and removing the areas of the fish with the most pollutants, like the organs and fat,” he explained.

It was now time to begin preparing the ginger sesame soy sauce for the fish. Students loved this part of the demonstration as the classroom filled with smells of ginger, green onions, lemon, and lime. With the ingredients prepared, it was time to reveal the raw rockfish from the cooler. Lela proudly displayed the fish and began explaining how to prepare the fish to remove as many of the toxins as possible. “Since the organs have been removed, I will now cut holes on each side of the fish which allows the juices containing more toxins in the fat to drain out. After it is cooked we will remove the skin and dark meat to remove further toxins.” After Lela seasoned the inside and out with salt and garlic powder, the whole group helped to stuff lemon slices inside the body of the fish. Placing the fish into the steamer, Kamila added, “The steam will cook the fish and the juices and toxins will collect in the bottom.”

While the fish cooked, La’Riyah, Jennifer, and Lauren, provided an entertaining “commercial” skit about a crab in the bay food chain and then guided a review and quiz of the “Guide for Eating Fish and Shellfish in the San Francisco Bay.” They looked at which fish are safe to eat for their age, how large one serving is, and how many servings they can eat in a week, or month, depending upon the fish species. “Did you know one serving is about the size of a deck of cards! These guides will be helpful for anyone that eats fish from the bay. Feel free to take them home,” they encouraged the audience. 

As the fish cooked, students in the front row could tell it was almost done. “The eyeball just popped out and the skin started to peel away. It also looks more white,” observed Clifton. The students organized the prepared toppings on the table and added tortillas to the top rack of the steamer, indicating they would be ready to start serving any minute. Students eagerly lined up to try the fish tacos. Some like Jaylen, were trying fish for the first time. “I have never had fish before and would try it again,” she said. Wrapping his tortilla into a burrito, Andrew said, “This is delicious. Can I have another?” The students cleaned the fish, leaving nothing but bones and those sections of the fish removed to reduce toxins like the skin and dark meat. “We didn’t even get to try the fish because the students wanted to eat it all. It smelled really good though!” said teacher Mrs. Moylan.

The students had varied previous cooking experiences, but all were able to be involved in, or observe, the whole fish preparation and cooking process. They gained knowledge on how to properly handle and prepare a whole raw fish, including how to cook and clean the fish to best eliminate toxins. Now equipped with valuable information to share with their families, the Antioch students have become family meal health advisors when consuming fish. This is especially important for some students who previously caught and consumed striped bass fish on a regular basis. Now they know it is something they should avoid at their age, and that there are other local and healthy alternatives such as brown rockfish, halibut, and chinook salmon.

KIDS for the BAY