Paul Watson: Toxic roulette and the revenge of the fish

By Guest Columnists

It looks like the fish are turning the tables on humanity. Not by choice but because ecological realities have boomeranged back upon humankind.

Tins of tuna fish now contain warnings that the product should not be eaten by pregnant women or young children because of high levels of mercury and other toxic heavy metals.

Farm raised salmon in North America contain antibiotics, growth hormones and even a dye to colour the flesh a pleasing pink while still alive.

Long-living fish like halibut, cod, orange roughy and swordfish contain large amounts of heavy metals. When you can live over a century like a halibut, you accumulate decades of toxins. When you live high up on the food chain, you build up mercury and other heavy metals.

Orcas in the Pacific Northwest of the United States are the most chemically contaminated animals in the world. Beluga whales in the St Lawrence River are treated as toxic waste when they die.

We treat the oceans like sewers and then act surprised that the fish that is eaten is polluted.

Humans can be wilfully blind and deliberately ignorant when it comes to food. We would never eat a piece of fish sitting in a bowl of mercury, arsenic and PCBs garnished with a lump of human fecal material on top.

Yet when the lump of crap is brushed off and the toxins washed away, we serve that lump of sautéed toxic fish flesh up without a thought of what has penetrated the cells of the meat.

The federal government of Canada has just allocated C$190,000 to investigate the impact of traditional fish diets on West Coast native communities.

Canadian Inuit have exceptionally high levels of toxic contaminants in their bodies because of their traditional reliance on whales and seals. The study currently being undertaken on the West Coast will reveal how high the level of contaminants are among Pacific Northwest First Nations.

I predict that the study will reveal that over 100 West Coast aboriginal communities are indeed facing a crisis of increasing levels of toxicity in the fish they eat.

This crisis is not one created by the activities of most Native people but is the consequence of mining, logging, sewage, manufacturing and salmon farming. Clear-cutting, agricultural run-off and mine tailings are actions that invite ecological consequences.

The chemical stew includes dioxins, furans, PCBs, flame retardants and DDT, mercury, arsenic and lead, all of which can accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals.

Quatsino First Nation Chief Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi, who was raised in the traditional style on the northwest tip of the island, said in a recent interview that in a recent seven-day period, she ate salmon and crab on four of the days.

Unfortunately for the Chief and her people this is no longer a healthy diet.

On the other side of the world in the Faeroe Islands about halfway between Iceland and Scotland, the level of mercury toxicity in the brains of Faeroese children is the highest in the world. Mercury literally eats away brain tissue. Faeroese health officials are now the world's experts on Minamata disease which is the name given to mercury poisoning.

I myself was raised in a fishing village on Canada's East Coast. The staples of my childhood were lobster, scallops, clams, cod, flounder, and smelts. We did not eat mussels because they were considered dirty. Today the restaurants in my hometown serve mussels because they are the most common shellfish that remains. They are even dirtier today than they were three decades ago.

It is hard to have an appetite for clams when the mud they are being dug from reeks of raw purplish oozing sewage.

I've given up "seafood". I don't have the ability of disassociation needed to separate the realities of over-exploitation and toxicity from the food that I eat.

And eating the flesh of mammals and birds instead still does not alleviate the pressure on marine wildlife. More than 50 per cent of the biomass taken from the sea is converted to fishmeal to be fed to domesticated land animals. We have literally converted herbaceous mammals like cows, sheep, pigs and sheep into the world's foremost aquatic predators.

The main staple of the puffin in the North Sea, the sand eel, has been so overly exploited by Danish fisheries for animal feed that puffins have starved by the thousands.

A great percentage of the fish caught off Chile goes to feed the ever-expanding populations of farmed salmon.

Domestic cats throughout the world actually consume more tuna than all the world's seals combined.

This kind of biological upheaval in feeding patterns is having serious environmental consequences.

And then to add insult to injury, humans point an accusatory finger at seals, dolphins, seabirds and whales - and whine that diminished fish populations have been caused by these aquatic predators. At the same time they suggest that humans are innocently just trying to feed their families and enjoy a prawn cocktail.

This disassociation has gone so far that recently a branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Canada attempted to host a live crab boil where they would have inflicted cruelty on some sea animals to raise funds to prevent cruelty to cute and cuddly land animals.

We humans can justify anything and everything we do.

In the end, nature bats last, and the fish are having their revenge as the natural reaction to our ecologically criminal actions kicks into high gear.

But telling people that smoking causes cancer does not deter some people from smoking and telling people that eating fish can kill you will most likely not deter some people from eating fish.

They prefer to continue playing toxic roulette.

* Paul Watson is founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

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