Healing Our World Commentary: Fish

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Fish: A Good Neighboor, but a Dangerous Food

To live content with small means,
to seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion,
to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich,
to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly,
to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart,
to bear all cheerfully,
do all bravely,
await occasions,
hurry never,
in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.

-- William Ellery Channing

At the same time that the "Journal of the American Medical Association" has published a study recommending that women eat fish two to four times a week to cut the risk of stroke, other studies are suggesting that fish may be one of our most dangerous foods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a warning last week that pregnant women should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because they could contain enough mercury to harm an unborn babyís developing brain.

Sadly, Americaís research system does nothing to prevent such damaging and conflicting information from being carried in the media worldwide. Well meaning mothers-to-be may find the first study and increase their fish consumption while never seeing the warning, which was published in many citiesí newspapers, buried as a filler story.


Fishing for largemouth bass (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS))
Eating fish has not been safe for many years. As dwellers in our polluted oceans, fish absorb toxic substances into their flesh by eating smaller fish that are contaminated and by the simple act of breathing. A fish breathes by letting water stream into its mouth and through its gills. Those miraculous organs take oxygen from the water to sustain the creatures life. If the water is polluted, as many of our oceans, lakes and streams are, then those toxic substances become resident in their bodies, eventually becoming part of their flesh.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that up to 12 ounces of other kinds of cooked fish can be eaten safely by pregnant women, many other scientists and environmentalists think that this is too much. Mercury is a deadly chemical when ingested and nearly always results in damage to the central nervous system, producing babies with slower cognitive development skills and possibly brain damage.

I wonder how many of our children with attention deficit disorder or other cognitive dysfunction have been affected by mercury poisoning? It is estimated that 60,000 babies born each year are effected by mercury poisioning from their mothersí eating contaminated fish.

Fish that feed on the bottoms of our waterways are particularly susceptible to contamination. Many of the deadliest pollutants sink to the bottom of bodies of water where these fish live and feed.


Harbor dredging can mix mercury contaminated sediments into the water (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
For example, rain carries the chemicals from the land into the rivers, lakes and oceans where the chemicals lodge in the bodies of simple organisms such as plankton. The chemicals may not affect a single microscopic organism, but a small shrimp may consume millions of the poisoned plankton in a day. A fish who eats many hundreds of the shrimp in a day will then receive not only the chemical dose that each shrimp absorbed from the water, but the magnified dose from the millions of plankton consumed by the shrimp as well. Another fish eats the smaller fish and so on until, for example, an eagle - or a human - eats a salmon. That salmon contains a hugely magnified dose of the poison, which will invariably affect the animal eating it.

In Santa Monica Bay in Southern California, bottom dwelling fish that are caught and eaten can be deadly. Between 1949 and 1979, Los Angeles dumped 1,000 pounds of DDT per day into the Bay. That poison, along with the rest of the waste we have been dumping since the 1930s, is still out there.

Today, a huge solid waste "doughnut" rests on the ocean floor off Santa Monica Bay, covering two square miles. Ocean currents continually bring this material up, poisoning sea life and bathers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is embarking on a plan to address this problem, but it is tricky. In the meantime, people are being poisoned.


Halibut and halibut filet (Photo courtesy Always Fresh Fish)
Fish are contaminated in other ways as well. Popular fish such as halibut are in so much demand that very restrictive fishing limits have been established. In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, some areas allow only a brief three weekends per year to catch halibut. This means that for a 48 to 72 hour period, thousands of fishing boats are catching as much halibut as they can. When these hundreds of thousands of fish are brought to shore at the end of the weekend, the processing plants cannot keep up, so thousands of pounds of fish sit on the docks or in boats for days waiting their turn.

Some large factory boats freeze the fish at sea, but the smaller boats cannot. Much of the fish is not in very good shape by the time it is processed.

Fish in supermarkets are often kept at improper temperatures and many random tests have shown that a significant percentage of the fish in that display case are not fit for consumption.

But not all fish eaten are caught wild from our polluted waterways. A large proportion of the fish marketed today is raised on farms. Is that fish any safer? Not necessarily.


Wild salmon in an Alaskan stream (Photo courtesy USFWS)
New evidence released earlier this year by the David Suzuki Foundation suggests that farmed salmon from Canada and Scotland contain dangerous levels of toxic chemicals from contaminated feed. Two independent studies suggest a much larger problem may exist for fish raised in this way. With the growing restrictions on wild caught salmon, people are relying on farmed fish more and more. The study found that the farmed salmon had as much as 10 times the levels of some pollutants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than wild fish. PCBs have long been known to suppress the immune system, leaving the victims open to a variety of diseases.

When will our political and industry leaders put the health of consumers ahead of their quarterly profits? When will politicians, often the least qualified people to be making rules on health and safety, stop bending to the wishes of the National Fisheries Institute, the nationís leading fish industry trade group?

But the ultimate choice rests with the consumers, you and I. We can choose to see the inherent dangers in consuming animal products. Countless studies and countless deaths have illustrated the folly of eating contaminated meat from the horrible conditions in slaughterhouses. Thousands die each year from eating poisoned chicken raised and processed in equally deplorable conditions. Even drinking milk has been shown to actually increase the risk of osteoporosis, not decrease it.

Try eliminating animal foods from your diet and experience the rich array of plant foods our world has to offer. Your health will improve, your children will be safe, and you will experience the joy of eating a meal that was not brought to you through the suffering of another creature.

Consider fish your neighbors, not your meal.


1. Be reminded of the routine destruction of our oceans at: http://seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov/OCEAN_PLANET/HTML/peril_oil_pollution.html

2. Read about the recent FDA warning about mercury in four types of fish in the "Seattle Times" by clicking here.

3. Read about the 60,000 newborns affected by mercury from contaminated fish by clicking here.

4. Learn about the connection between consuming dairy products and osteoporosis at Earthsave at: http://www.earthsave.org/ and through the John McDougall Wellness Center at: http://www.drmcdougall.com/

5. Learn about the situation with halibut from the International Pacific Halibut Commission at: http://www.iphc.washington.edu/halcom/default.htm

6. Check out the Organic Consumers Association at: http://www.organicconsumers.org/info.htm

7. Look for food co-ops near you for the best in food. You can find a listing for many at the Co-Op America Green Pages Online at: http://www.coopamerica.org/gp/

8. Want to feed the homeless and needy in your community wholesome foods? Visit the Food Not Bombs webpage at: http://home.earthlink.net/~foodnotbombs/ and learn how.

9. An interesting summary of compelling reasons to reduce the consumption of animal products can be found at: http://www.essene.com/Essene%20Teachings/Vegetarian.html. It includes an overview of the eating practices of the world's major religious groups.

10. Many resources to help the consumer can be found at the web site of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at: http://www.peta-online.org/liv/index.html 11. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Demand that they stay strong and work harder to protect our health, the environment and animal rights. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at: http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at: http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html. You can also find your representatives at: http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html.

[Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found wondering how many of the salmon returning from the sea to spawn in local streams are contaminated with mercury. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at http://www.healingourworld.com]