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The Salton Sea in the 1930's Source: greetingsfromsaltonsea.com
The Salton Sea in the 1930’s Source: http://www.greetingsfromsaltonsea.com/

The Salton Sea has been many things to a lot of people. It has been a piece of post-apocalyptic landscape, an artist’s muse, and a lesson on water management and habitat restoration. At one point, it was a hot spot for vacations and was even one of the hottest fisheries in California. Imagine that, the Salton Sea as it is now once had enough fish in it that you could catch them without bait. Now, not so much, but that does not mean you cannot fish at the Salton Sea. There are even groups such as the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association that advocate fishing at the Salton Sea as a wholesome means of entertainment.

So the pressing question on everyone’s mind is “Can I eat fish from the Salton Sea?” More precisely, “Will eating fish from the Salton Sea kill me?”

The short answers are “Yes, you can eat them and no, they won’t kill you if you eat them, so long as you practice moderation.”

Back in 2004, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment (COHHA) issued an advisory to limit how much fish one should consume from the Salton Sea.  In 2009, the serving size was set to two servings per week.[1] This translates to 16 ounces (454 grams) of any fish from the Salton Sea in a week would have no effect on a normal person and should be safe according to COHHA.

The rationale behind the COHHA advisory is listed in a report that is available to the  [2]. In short, the selenium concentrations of the tilapia and corvina were approaching 2.5 milligrams per kilograms of tissue back in 2000. Eating 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of fish from the Salton Sea per day would give you selenosis in the course of a few weeks.[3] Selenosis is selenium poisoning, a condition where you suffer from hair loss, tooth decay, garlic breath, weakness and brain damage. The COHHA advisory is based solely on selenium levels, as those are most immediately dangerous, but that does not mean that selenium is the only hazardous substance in the fish.

Work done in 2002 reaffirmed the COHHA advisory by finding high levels of aluminum and arsenic in the fish near the shore and around the mouths of the New and Alamo rivers.[4] The study also found some other more hazardous substances: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and hexachlorocyclohexanes (HCHs). PCBs are known to cause cancer and delays in neurological development[5], DDT is suspected to cause cancer and leads to premature births with chronic exposure[6], and HCHs can cause liver cancer and convulsions. All of this is with chronic exposure that would come from daily intake of fish from the Salton Sea.

So we know it sounds scary but you can eat the fish at the Salton Sea, just do not eat it every day for weeks at a time.

Source: UCR Water Sense IGERT
Poor tilapia Source: UCR Water Sense IGERT

[1] http://oehha.ca.gov/fish/so_cal/saltonsea.html

[2] http://oehha.ca.gov/fish/pdf/DiscAdvyUpdates031309.pdf

[3] Risher, J., McDonald, a. R., Citra, M. J., Bosch, S. & Amata, R. J. Toxicological Profile for Selenium. U.S Public Health Service Agency Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (2003). At <http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp92.pdf&gt;

[4] Riedel, R., Schlenk, D., Frank, D. & Costa-Pierce, B. Analyses of organic and inorganic contaminants in Salton Sea fish. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 44, 403–411 (2002).

[5] Faroon, O. & Olson, J. Toxicological Profile for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). U.S Public Health Service Agency Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (2000). At <http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp17.pdf&gt;

[6] Faroon, O. et al. Profile for DDT, DDE, and DDD. U.S Public Health Service Agency Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (2000). At <http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp35.pdf&gt;