Good News Bad News about the World’s Fish Population

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization produced a report called “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.” It found that in 2010, fish provided more than 2.9 billion people with almost 20% of their intake of animal protein and a further 4.3 billion people with about 15% of such protein. In some countries it accounts for more than 25% of animal protein intake. But are the fish in our world’s oceans safe to eat?

Researchers Lindsay Bonito, Amro Hamdoun, and Stuart Sanding of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, recently published a study in the journal PeerJ. They carried out a global analysis of seafood that found that toxic pollutants are found in fish across the world’s oceans but that their levels have been consistently dropping over the last three decades.

The scientists analyzed hundreds of peer reviewed articles from 1969-2012. The pollutants studied included older chemicals, such as DDT and mercury, as well as newer industrial chemicals, such as flame retardants and coolants.

“Based on the best data collected from across the globe, we can say that POPs can by anywhere and in any species of marine fish,” said Sandin, a co-author of the study.

While the industrial and agricultural pollutants, collectively known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), were found in fish in all of the world’s oceans, the concentrations in the consumable meat of marine fish were highly variable in one region or one group of fish. The researcher’s analysis showed that the average concentrations of each class of POP were much greater in the 1980s than today, where concentrations have dropped 15-30 percent per decade.

“This means that the typical fish that you consume today can have approximately 50 percent of the concentration of most POPs when compared to the same fish eaten by your parents at your age,” said Bonito, the lead author of the study. “But there still remains a chance of getting a fillet as contaminated as what your parents ate.”

The researchers compared their findings with the federal safety guidelines for seafood consumption and found that average levels of contaminants were at or below the health standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The authors feel that these results suggest that the global community has responded to the calls to action to limit the release of potentially harmful chemicals into the environment. However they caution that while pollutant concentrations in our ocean fish are declining, they still remain quite high, and that understanding the cumulative effects of numerous exposures to pollutants in seafood is necessary to determine the specific risk to consumers.

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