In the Aftermath of Radiation, Is Fish From the Pacific Ocean Safe to Eat?

Radioactive water leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has some people worried about contaminated seafood.

Fresh fish for sale at an open-air fish market in Seattle, Washington. (Marje Cannon/Getty)

Sep 3, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

So long, salmon. Buh-bye, halibut. Farewell, tasty, succulent crab. Are your days of eating Pacific fish over? That’s the menacing message from blogger Gary Stamper, who claims the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant isn’t just turning our seafood into glow-in-the-dark radioactive poison, it’s also causing fur loss and open sores on polar bears and seals; creating an epidemic of dead and starving sea lions; making Canadian herring bleed “from eyeballs, faces, fins, tails.” And that West Coast babies will be battling thyroid issues for life.

“The only way to protect your children and grandchildren is by NOT EATING SEAFOOD from the Pacific Ocean until we have better information,” Stamper warns.

The post, published on a site we had never heard of before, is brimming with fear-mongering hysteria about “what you haven’t been told.” Unfortunately for Stamper, the story is getting some traffic from outside of the doomsday prepper blogosphere, enough so that it caught our attention and that of Mike Rothschild at Skeptoid, who put together a good point-by-point rebuttal of the Stamper post, complete with the nitty-gritty on becquerels of radioactive material.

We thought it was important to specifically address the concerns about seafood, so we called up Nicholas Fisher, a professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York. He’s been measuring radioactivity in seafood since the Fukushima accident happened in March 2011, and was the lead author in the study that found radioactive isotopes in 15 bluefin plucked from the waters near San Diego.

“Radioactivity in the fish that arrive in North American is detectible, but just barely,” he says. “No measurements we’ve made are a public health concern. If we found scary-high levels [of radioactivity] we would report them to authorities, but we’re nowhere near that.”

Fisher does say that seafood caught and imported from Japan should be analyzed. While you might think of Japan as an import-only country, when it comes to seafood, that’s not the case. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. imported almost 45 million pounds of fish from Japan in 2012.

Seafood that Fiona Matheson, a spokesperson from NOAA Fisheries, assures us is safe.

“The combined controls in place by the Japanese government and the FDA have prevented contaminated seafood from entering the U.S,” she says.

To put the risk of radioactive seafood in perspective, she adds, “NOAA funded a study of tuna on the U.S. West Coast in August 2011, and another in the summer of 2012 that sampled tuna migrating from Japan. Scientists found levels to be extremely low (one to three Bq/kg wet weight). At these levels there is no risk to human health. A person would have to eat more than 4,000 pounds of albacore tuna at a much higher radiation level to increase his/her radiation level by just one percent.”

It’s clear that Fukushima remains a serious ongoing problem: There are new radioactive leaks, plans for an ice wall, and yesterday’s statement by Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, that contaminated water used to cool what’s left of the nuclear reactors, must be released into the ocean—a “solution” that’s alarming to both nearby countries and fishermen. But does all that spell bad news for seafood lovers? Not just yet. And not for the entirety of the vast Pacific Ocean.

“Obviously, the situation at Fukushima is distressing, and not at all something that should be shrugged off. But compounding it with scaremongering about our food supply does nothing productive for anyone. Whether or not you continue to eat fish from the Pacific Ocean is entirely up to you. But I urge you to make that decision based on sound scientific research and testable claims, not hysterical screeds backed by supposition and fear,” writes Rothschild.