Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mercury Cove

Sunday afternoon, home alone, I watched The Cove via Netflix DVD. I did not want to see it in the theater, but thought it would be interesting to see in my own living room. All in all, it was not a terrible documentary. A little too "Discovery Channel Hyped" - where lack of extensive footage of varying events lead to a massive emphasis on preparation, expectation, 'assembling the team', but with only a small portion of the whole film focusing on the dolphin slaughter they were intending to prevent. There were a couple of nearly tear-jerking moments that really played upon human sympathies. Louie Psihoyos did a good job putting together his film that the Japanese government and local Taijii fishermen Did Not want told. Like asbestos farmers, slave traders, and confederate separatists before them, the proud Taijii fishermen believe that what they are doing (in their case, the eradication of dolphins) is a noble cause, a way of life, ingrained in the history of their community. They believe it is akin to "pest control" as the dolphins eat "too many fish".

The Japanese government, through their representative to the International Whaling Commission and their financial lobbying of indebted third world coastal nations to bribe Antigua, St.Lucia, The Marshal Islands, Cambodia, and others, supports this misguided theory. With Japan's substantial financial resources, they donate millions to poor Caribbean, African, and SE Asian nations to vote in concordance with Japan on the promotion of increasing whale slaughters in the name of egotistically stubborn cultural psuedo science. It's pretty sad and twisted. Way of life? Yeah, so was burning of witches, jus primae noctis, and sacrifice to Nanauatl to make sure the sun rose in ancient Mexico.

The Taijii fisherman are ironically right in one way - the dolphins ARE eating alot of fish. As an apex predator in the ocean - dolphins attack sharks, as has testified, in the protection of humans - only people kill able-bodied dolphins. Dolphins eat many pounds of smaller fish per day... smaller fish that ate still smaller fish... that ate accumulated heavy metal contaminated plankton and algae. So the dolphins meat slaughtered around Japan has mercury levels at 2000 ppm. "2000 ppm, so what?" you might ask. Well, 0.5 ppm is considered a "high"level of mercury in commercially caught apex predator fish like tuna, shark, and swordfish. Check out the NIOSH REL and ACGIH TLVs... zoiks! ...and the EPA site as well.

So mercury is really bad stuff to living, breathing, sentient vertebrates. That includes both humans and cetaceans. Except most humans eat less fish than cetaceans consume, so it builds up more quickly in the cetacean's body - especially in muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is a sushi favorite. The higher up the food chain the marine predator is, and more mature it is, the more mercury is in the meat.

This brings me to the most disturbing part of The Cove DVD extras. In the extras, Louie Psihoyos the producer, tells about how he met with a group of 6 Japanese neuroscientists who work at the National Institute for Minamata Disease (NIMD) in Minamata-shi, Kumamoto Japan (link here). These 6 professional, experienced scientists are studying neurological disorders caused by methylmercury poisoning (水俣病, Minamata-byō) - specifically from the widespread mercury poisoning in Minimata in the 1950s by the Chisso corporation.

Japan knows all too well about how nasty mercury poisoning can be. At the dinner, Psihoyos (a vegetarian) ate sushi. It was Japan after-all, and he loves sushi, as many Americans do. NONE of the Japanese neurological researchers ate ANY sushi. Psihoyos noticed this, and asked them why? Unanimously, they said that all sushi is laden with mercury. Surprised, Psihoyos said "well, I love to eat sushi, and I have not had any mercury exposure." The group of researchers all laughed heartily, and recommended that Psihoyos get tested, for residual mercury levels. The next day he did, and it showed levels dozens of times higher than are recommended for human exposure by the US and Japanese governments.

Psihoyos asked the 6 researchers - who all requested to remain anonymous to retain their jobs at the institute - how they determined how much mercury was in sushi. The researchers explained an experiment they ran:
- each researcher took a baseline residual mercury level blood test
- then they began to eat 200g of cheap canned tuna per day, for 30 days (I just checked a single serving can of tuna in my pantry, it is 198g)
- they charted their blood mercury levels, daily
- after 2 weeks of eating one can of cheap tuna a day, all six of the researchers' blood mercury levels DOUBLED.
This alarmed them - as it would alarm me too! So these neuroscientists modified their experiment:
- instead of buying the cheapest canned tuna, they bought the more expensive "sushi grade" tuna, and ate 200g per person, per day.
- they continued to graph their blood mercury levels, daily.
The slope of the graphs of each researcher doubled again, becoming much steeper, much quicker, and at 3 weeks after the start of the experiment, blood mercury levels were now 4X higher than the baseline tests, pre-experiment. The neuroscientists ENDED their experiment, after 3 weeks, and none have eaten sushi since.

To me, that's telling. It's fact, not fiction. I used to enjoy the occasional tuna roll or even a can of tuna as a quick snack... but I am not sure I can comfortably enjoy it again in the future. The mercury accumulation can't be "flushed out" readily by anti-oxidants, or rigorous exercise... it just stays inside the body and slowly makes you less human, attacking the nervous system (blindness, loss of taste, smell, hearing, muscle control, memory, headaches, cognition...). Eating apex predator fish is not worth it to me. And I hope my wife and friends and relatives who are inexorably devoted to sushi & fish consumption don't ingest so much that they begin to accumulate elevated levels of mercury in their bodies as well.

LEAST MERCURY (generally the younger fish, who are not apex predators)
Enjoy these fish:
Crab (Domestic)
Croaker (Atlantic)
Haddock (Atlantic)*
Mackerel (N. Atlantic, Chub)
Perch (Ocean)
Salmon (Canned)**
Salmon (Fresh)**
Shad (American)
Sole (Pacific)
Squid (Calamari)
Trout (Freshwater)

Eat six servings or less per month:
Bass (Striped, Black)
Cod (Alaskan)*
Croaker (White Pacific)
Halibut (Atlantic)*
Halibut (Pacific)
Mahi Mahi
Perch (Freshwater)
Tuna (Canned
chunk light)
Tuna (Skipjack)*
Weakfish (Sea Trout)

Eat three servings or less per month:
Mackerel (Spanish, Gulf)
Sea Bass (Chilean)*
Tuna (Canned Albacore)
Tuna (Yellowfin)*

HIGHEST MERCURY (all apex predators at top of the food chain in their marine environments)
Avoid eating:
Mackerel (King)
Orange Roughy*
(Bigeye, Ahi)*

* These fish are perilously low in numbers or are caught using environmentally destructive methods.
** Farmed Salmon may contain PCB's, chemicals with serious long-term health effects.

There's a package of Kroger Frozen Orange Roughy, left over in the bottom of our freezer from when my mother in law came to visit last October while we went to Hawaii. I can't bring myself to cook & eat it.

1 comment:

  1. The Mullet has the least mercury? That's promising. I guess Kentucky is the safest place to eat seafood...


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