On March 11, 2011 a 9.0 earthquake triggered a massive tsunami off the coast of Japan, which hit the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and caused one of its nuclear reactors to melt down. Radioactive materials were released into the environment, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is now known as the largest nuclear incident since Chernobyl. Radiation was released into the sky, land and sea, and the full effects on the Japanese populace are yet to be known.
Coolant water was discharged into the sea on the Fukushima Coast, which is home to some of the world’s strongest currents – and the contaminated waters were dispersed across the Pacific Ocean.
What does this mean for marine life on the West Coast of the United States? Is Pacific Ocean fish safe to eat? Is sushi off the menu?
Experts disagree. Radiation in sea life can be measured by cesium contamination. Cesium is a radioactive isotope that was released in the meltdown. Fish at the top of the food chain are most sensitive to this type of pollution over time. Cesium concentration in the waters off Japan are shown to be 10 to 1000 times above pre-accident levels – however this is still below the amount that is considered harmful to fish and other animals, including humans.
In Seattle, fishmonger Pete Knutson at Loki fish company has tested fish after fish. As he reported to NPR, most contained such low levels of cesium that it wasn’t picked up by his Geiger counter until the samples were concentrated. University of Washington oceanographer Kim Martini confirms that “to actually get a harmful dose of tuna you have to eat 2.5 tons of tuna a year.” Unless you’re a great white shark, you’re probably okay. Some Pacific Ocean fish do contain small levels of radioactive isotopes – but so do rocks, sandy beaches and bananas. Martini and other scientists argue that ocean fish is safe to eat and that our radiation fears are invalid – and she has received death threats for suggesting so.
Other experts aren’t so convinced that the Fukushima disaster did not affect our sea life. In British Columbia’s scenic Fraser Valley, cesium has been found in a soil sample. This area is known for Chinook and sockeye salmon, and further testing on the fish themselves will soon be done. Juan Jose Alava of Simon Fraser University states that “it means there are still emissions… and trans-Pacific air pollution.” Could these radioactive isotopes affect other marine life, such as orca whales? What about animals higher up on the food chain – like us?
As with most complex issues in life, there is no exact answer to the question: is fish safe to eat after the Fukushima disaster? Chances are, you started reading this article already with one answer or the other in your mind. Some would argue that the only truly safe diet comes from an organic vegetable garden grown in your backyard and eaten raw. Some say that red meat is part of a healthy diet, and others insist that dairy can only bring death.
Should you eat fish? The decision is up to you. Larger breeds of fish always contain higher levels of toxins, so you can always avoid tuna, eels and sea bass. The Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is generally considered one of the top expert sources on seafood safety and sustainability. If you are truly worried about the fallout from the Fukushima disaster, arm yourself with knowledge to help calm your anxiety.
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Image: Renee S. Ruen