Here's What's Being Done to Test Seafood for Radiation After Fukushima

Not much radiation is being seen now, but that could change.

Pacific Fish Safe To Eat? Testing Seafood for Radiation After Fukushima

(Photo: John Grant/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Dylan Knutson knew the salmon he was selling at farmers markets throughout Seattle was both safe and delicious. But customers, even those who had been buying from his family’s business for nearly 15 years, began sharing their doubts.

“I had a number of regulars tell me they wouldn’t eat fish from the Pacific anymore, and it was directly because of Fukushima,” says Knutson, general manager of Loki Fish Co.

Questions about seafood safety emerged immediately after the earthquake and tsunami that led to the nuclear power plant failure in Japan nearly three years ago. But that initial alarm over seafood caught in the Pacific dwindled until about six months ago. Knutson thinks the recent spike in questions stems from alarmist blogs that went viral—a trend we also observed.

Instead of trying to fight with Internet trolls, the company took the unusual and expensive step of getting its fish tested for radioisotopes cesium-134 and cesium-137 that could be traced directly to the Fukushima disaster. It sent seven samples of salmon caught in Southeast Alaska and Puget Sound to a laboratory in Louisiana, at a cost of $1,200. The company released the reports in January and posted the results on its website.

What did it find? Five samples did not register any level of radiation. Two showed very low traces—well below any limits set by the government and consistent with background levels of radiation in common foods, says Knutson.

Concerned seafood lovers aren’t confined to Seattle, of course. 

Nearly 50 scientists have started to collect kelp samples up and down the West Coast, looking for traces of radioactive material that traveled on ocean currents from Japan to the U.S.

Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist and marine chemist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says monitoring kelp will indicate whether the isotopes are present, but not the abundance. Testing water is more precise. That's why he’s launched an ambitious crowdfunding site, OurRadioactiveOcean.org, that will fund regular testing of water samples to monitor radiation levels.

“I can see why people are concerned. Radiation is dangerous. You can’t touch it, see it, or smell it, and it’s measured in units called becquerels that many might not understand,” says Buesseler. “Even if we’re at levels not of concern, we should confirm that, and that’s what our crowdfunding is about—to get data points.”

Buesseler says models vary slightly, but the general consensus is that the highest levels of radiation will reach our coast in two years. That is why he hopes individuals or groups can raise the $500 to $600 per kit needed to keep the testing going

“That may sound like a lot of money, but the detector I use cost $75,000, and I can only analyze two or three samples a week. We’re hoping to build capacity,” he says.

Seafood worries are surfacing in Hawaii too, where earlier this week lawmakers introduced a bill that would require radiation testing of both ocean waters and seafood.

Jeffrey Eckherd, an official with Hawaii’s Department of Public Health, says that while the state is coordinating tests with federal agencies including the EPA and NOAA, it does not believe specific testing of seafood is needed at this time. He says his department will likely post an update on radiation levels in the next week, and he acknowledges the legislature has asked for “more frequent updates because of increased concern.”

Like Hawaii, Alaska isn’t testing its seafood. 

“Currently there is no testing going on,” says Ali Hamade, environmental public health program manager with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. But he emphasizes that information gathered in other Pacific Northwest states, including Washington and Oregon, indicates that seafood remains safe to eat.

“We are working with the regional FDA office to see if they’ll test fish for us, and we’re coordinating with all the Pacific states and concerned federal agencies to compare notes,” he says. The state is also launching a website that could go live as early as next week that will address radiation concerns.

In the meantime, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has launched a campaign to dispel rumors that its seafood may be tainted by Fukushima radiation.

Perhaps it should follow the lead of Loki Fish Co.: Making the results of its seafood testing public helped bring back fish lovers.

“Customers came back to the market, thanked us for doing the testing, and are buying fish again,” says Knutson. “I know I feel better about being certain there is not a problem. It’s our mission to be transparent. It’s such a critical issue that we wanted a clear solution—this seemed like the only way to get there."

When salmon season opens again in June, Knutson says the company will test again.

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