"I have no vice in life, but I do like to fish," says Juan Villas.
Speaking to me in Spanish, Villas explains how he retired from his job five years ago and arrives at the touristy Santa Monica Pier each morning at 7 AM sharp. He learned to fish as a child in Nicaragua and has continued to fish since he moved to Los Angeles more than 40 years ago. "There is a lot more fish in Nicaragua, but the fish here tastes just as good," he says.
During the five hours he's spent on the pier this day, Villas caught a two-pound Calico sea bass, which he keeps in a bucket of water. In the past, he's caught halibut as big as 30 pounds. "There is no other fish with the same texture, especially when you fry it," he tells me of his favorite fish, which he cleans with lime juice. He then fries the fish before sprinkling it with garlic salt and drizzling it with soy sauce.
But fishing here comes with a risk. The Fish Contamination Education Collaborative (FCEC) lists Santa Monica beach and its surrounding bay as a "red zone." Some varieties of fish found in that zone—including white croaker, barred sand bass, barracuda, black croaker, and topsmelt—may be contaminated with DDT and PCBs, chemicals that have been demonstrated to cause cancer, liver disease, and adverse effects on the immune and endocrine systems.
All over the pier are signs—written in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese—that read "DO NOT EAT CONTAMINATED FISH." (The FCEC has worked to overcome the language barrier with immigrant communities, hosting community workshops in both Chinese and Vietnamese and answering questions that people may have about catching and cooking fish.) Despite the warnings, immigrant fishermen like Villas continue to eat all of the fish that they catch.
When asked about the risks of eating fish caught in the area, Villas grows angry. "How are they going to tell me I can't eat fish that have been caught in the wild? Look at me—I've been eating fish caught here in the Santa Monica pier for over 30 years and I'm perfectly fine."
Just then, one of his friends starts to feel a tug. He reels in a Calico bass that's about the same size as the one Villas has in his bucket. "Looks like his brother!" he jokes, spitting out sunflower seed shells into a plastic bag and preparing another line.
On another side of the pier, a Chinese fisherman who drove 30 miles from Monterey Park is on his second hour of fishing. He shows me his catch: a beautiful, striped silver mackerel that is probably an inch away from being used as a baitfish. The fisherman speaks very little English, but with the few words he does know, he says the word "rice" and "fry." When asked how many years he's been fishing at the pier, he puts two fingers in the air.
Meanwhile, other fishermen show up to do catch and release. "I've kept a piece of some halibut that I caught once to grill at home, but I mostly give it away," says one fisherman wearing a USC hat.
"And I guess it is OK to eat, because I see the same people here every time I come. So at least no one has died or gotten sick from any of the fisherman that I know of."