Toxin talk

Mercury in seafood food chain

Mercury in seafood food chain. Image courtesy of Bretwood Higman, Ground Truth Trekking/Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday morning, I happened to be talking with another avid recreational fisherman about the presence of toxic elements and chemicals in some of the fish that anglers like to catch and a lot of people like to eat. The discussion centered on striped bass and the health warning posted in just about every Atlantic coastal state, with the exception of Massachusetts, where migratory striped bass and bluefish are caught.

Then, out of the blue, comes an email press release that the Food & Drug Administration is being sued because it has failed to respond to a petition filed in 2011 that requested (1) informational labeling on packaged seafood that reflects the joint recommendations of the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency in their online advisory; (2) consumption recommendations at the point of sale of unpackaged, fresh seafood, presented in a user friendly format; and (3) informational mercury level and consumption limit labeling on packaging or at the point of sale for seafood species with moderate or high mercury content that are not otherwise listed in the online advisory. 

Bingo! So the two of us having the discussion are not the only ones wondering why there is not more public awareness of this problem and why there are not more comprehensive requirements for making the public aware.

In my case, it is probably too late to worry about this problem. But I have four grandchildren, and they are likely to be impacted by their consumption of some fish. My children should be given the information that will allow them to make the right decisions for their children. Studies have shown that methylmercury, which occurs when airborne mercury is saturated in water, is a neurotoxin that leads to learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and impaired cognitive and nervous system functioning. Studies also have shown that PCBs have a known neuropsychological effect in children and can cause an elevated risk of cancer. Both of these contaminants bio-accumulate, primarily in fatty tissue. A copy of the study can be found here and Maine’s recommendations for stripped bass and bluefish consumption from the Atlantic coastal states are found below.

Striped bass and bluefish consumption advisory, Atlantic states

Figure from the Interstate Workgroup report indicating recommendations for striped bass and bluefish consumption. Figure courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, here we have a fairly comprehensive study of contaminants in fish and the potential hazards to the sensitive group, which consists of women of child-bearing age as well as young women and children. That group is advised by this study to consume from one meal a month to zero consumption. Others are advised to consume no more than one meal a month – not exactly an endorsement for eating seafood.

Virtually every state from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine has posted these warnings except for the state of Massachusetts. Why, I cannot find out. It may have to do as much with the workings of state bureaucracy as any other possibility. Some think that this has been done to protect the commercial striped bass fishery. I don’t know, but I do know is that it is not protecting the general public. There may be some reasoning by state health officials that they do not post the health warning. That has to do with the testing methodology. Methylmercury bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue. In some testing methods the entire fish is ground up, and the testing is done on that. This gives a lower reading of the toxic contaminants than if the test had been done solely on the part of the fish normally consumed.

It still seems strange to me that almost all the coastal Atlantic states have some level of warning about consumption of bluefish and striped bass. Most of the states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took part in the study workgroup, in which Massachusetts had three participants. All of the New England states except Massachusetts since have posted health warnings about consumption of these fish. It seems odd to me that when fish cross the imaginary state line into Massachusetts waters they somehow become cleansed. Could be, ya know! There have been other Massachusetts Miracles. And if you believe that…!

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Rip Cunningham
"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.
Rip Cunningham

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2 comments on “Toxin talk

  1. Bill Johnson on said:

    Is there a web site that lists the level of contaminants (in ppm or whatever) and recommendations on consumption for all fish sold commercially or commonly eaten by sportsmen? Seems that the government would sponsor such a page.

  2. Sarah Kempke on said:

    Great question! Fish consumption advisories can be complicated because the exposure risk varies greatly based on geography and fish species, and unfortunately there is not an excellent one-stop-shop for recommendations on a federal level. The EPA collects information local fish advisories but the interface is a clunky and sometimes out of date. It is, however, a good place to start:

    http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/fishshellfish/fishadvisories/index.cfm

    The NIH, in an attempt to address some of these issues, recently published an excellent review of the different information and guidelines available for fish consumption in North America, called “Which Fish Should I Eat? Perspectives Influencing Fish Consumption Choices”. The tables in this paper compare a number of fish consumption guidelines in including federal agencies and non-profits and it does a good job of explaining why the recommendation process is so complicated. The paper can be found online here:

    http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1104500/#r22

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