November 11, 2020
Rain is a blessing for wildfires, but for the San Francisco Bay, it’s a nightmare. When water runs along streets and gutters towards storm drains, they pick up trash, microparticles, and chemicals. Eventually, these pollutants are pumped out into the Bay. San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) estimates that 7 trillion particles of microplastics make their way into the Bay annually. Additionally, fertilizers, pesticides, oils, and – worst of all – toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PBC) as well as Mercury all run into the Bay.
Currently, 91 contaminants are monitored by the Safe Drinking Water Act, but this is minuscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of chemicals in use today. Fertilizers provide the nutrients needed for algae to grow, lowering the oxygen content in the water. At the same time, PBC and Mercury contaminate the fish in the San Francisco Bay. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), White Sturgeons, sharks, Surfperches, and Striped Bass have such high concentrations of these chemicals that eating them is unsafe.
Chemicals are passed on from plankton to fish, to bigger fish, and to top predators like the Harbors Seals—each step of the way, there is an increase of concentrations. The Harbor Seals range all across the globe, including the San Francisco Bay. These creatures grow to a little over five feet in length and 130 lbs. Their coats are gray and sport black dots across their bodies. Harbor Seals are not endangered, but they cannot escape the effects of environmental change. Studies from the California Academy of Sciences reveal that toxins lower reproduction and dampen their immune systems. A decline in Harbor Seals in Scotland is attributed to the chemicals in their waters, and there’s no telling if the population around the Bay will also suffer similar effects from prolonged pollution.
Of course, if the problem were just water pollution, it would be much simpler. The warming water shifts the seals’ prey elsewhere and supports new pathogens that cause diseases. Furthermore, the rising water level and strong storms can erode the shoreline causing loss of habitat. While water pollution most directly affects the seals, humans also eat the sea creatures of the Bay. The waste humans pump out into the ocean come full circle and make their way back to hurt the polluters.