Toxic Whales

Sea Shepherd had an undercover operative in the Faeroe islands recently, and just days ago, we received shocking images of slaughtered pilot whales with unborn calves having been cut out of the mothers’ bodies. These mammals are killed during what the locals call “the Grind,” but more accurately should be called what it is—slaughter.

The Faroese claim that the Grind is a traditional and cultural right and a source of food, yet the issue of mercury contamination is once again brought to the fore because Faroese chief medical officers Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen announced in late 2008 that pilot whale meat and blubber contains too much mercury, PCBs and DDT derivatives to be safe for human consumption.

There is a lot of talk from environmentalists about the high level of mercury contamination in certain fish and large marine animals. The fishing industry and pro-fishing lobbyists tell us that this is just vegetarian hippy scaremongering and we should eat all the fish we can because it is good for us.

Because the directors at Sea Shepherd are asked about this so often, I thought it would be an idea to detail some sourced information and let you decide for yourselves.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made this announcement in 2006: “Imported canned ‘chunk light tuna’ (mostly skipjack) contained nearly ten times the level of mercury deemed the cut –off for ‘low mercury’ fish.” The first FDA report on methylmercury in fish appeared in 1994 and warned consumers that shark, swordfish, and albacore tuna contained unsafe levels of mercury; however, under pressure from the tuna industry, a billion dollar enterprise in the U.S., albacore tuna were removed from the warning.

Marion Nestle, chair of New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health said, “Everyone should avoid eating much of the fish that are highest in methylmercury—especially shark, swordfish, and tuna…pregnant women and young children should not eat such fish at all.”

Let’s move over to Japan.

Tests on whale meat for sale in Japan have revealed astonishing levels of mercury, according to Andy Coghlan in the New Scientist in 2002. “While it has long been known that the animals accumulate heavy metals such as mercury in their tissues, the levels discovered have surprised even experts. Two of 26 liver samples contained over 1970 micrograms of mercury per gram of liver. That is nearly 5000 times the Japanese government’s limit for mercury contamination.”

At these levels of contamination, a 170 lb man eating just 0.15 grams of whale liver would exceed the weekly mercury intake considered safe by the World Health Organization, say Tetsuya Endo, Koichi Haraguchi, and Masakatsu Sakata from the University of Hokkaido. They carried out research and found that “acute intoxication could result from a single ingestion.”

The above information has numerous sources, but I took the information from Richard Ellis’s book, Tuna – Love, Death and Mercury.

Sharks, swordfish, tuna, whales, dolphins, and other large marine animals tend to be long-lived and carry more mercury than small fish, because they accumulate more mercury as they eat large quantities of the smaller fish and sea life.

Certainly there are fishing industry experts and lobbyists who tell us there is no risk. I wonder how many of these lobbyists allow the pregnant women and children in their families to eat these species…

STEVE ROEST is Chief Executive Officer of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.