Group cries foul over locally bought seafood
DESTIN — BP will pay $20 million to the Florida Agriculture Department over the next three years to help fund enhanced seafood inspections and marketing efforts aimed at restoring public confidence in the safety of Gulf of Mexico seafood.
The agreement comes just over three months after Commissioner Charles H. Bronson sent a letter to BP President Bob Dudley outlining the added costs his department will incur in years to come to assure the safety of Gulf seafood and initiate marketing efforts in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident last spring.
The agreement with BP provides that the company will provide $10 million for seafood testing and $10 million for marketing over the next three years with an optional extension if there are further fishery closures.
After a recent undercover investigation of Destin area seafood distributors, Buffy Martin Tarbox says people shouldn’t eat swordfish or tuna due to what she calls “dangerously high levels of mercury.”
“Our effort is to visit common grocery stores and supermarkets where people may go to buy seafood,” said the campaign coordinator for GotMercury.org, a public health advocacy group. “We just want people to be aware of the potential hazards associated with these fish.”
The California-based organization, which is part of the Turtle Island Restoration Network’s efforts to protect the environment and the public from mercury, had a local volunteer collect 17 samples of tuna and swordfish from a total of 11 Destin-area seafood counters and supermarkets to test the levels of mercury in each sample.
The researchers do not know whether the fish samples bought in Destin were caught locally, a fact which is causing skepticism among local seafood experts.
Tarbox said the testing was conducted as part of a national effort called “Operation Safe Seafood,” and that similar testing has taken place in New York, Iowa and California. While Destin was chosen randomly, Tarbox said that the group wanted to test the Gulf Coast waters, especially after the BP oil spill.
According to the report, 41 percent of the 17 fish samples taken in the Destin area were found to contain “dangerous levels of mercury” that exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s mercury action level of one part per million.
The report also said one tuna sample was nearly 300 percent over federal mercury limits.
“We have never seen such high mercury levels in tuna as were found in Florida,” Tarbox said. “The dangerously elevated amounts of mercury should make Gulf residents decide if swordfish and tuna is safe for their families to eat.”
The samples were collected from businesses in Destin, Niceville and Fort Walton Beach. The Destin businesses were Destin Ice Seafood Market and Deli, Publix Supermarket, The Fresh Market and Winn-Dixie.
Out of the four Destin businesses, a swordfish sample from Publix reportedly had a mercury level of 1.70 ppm; a tuna sample from The Fresh Market 1.06 ppm; tuna from Destin Ice 0.88 ppm; and a tuna sample from Winn Dixie 0.71 ppm. Only the tuna sample and swordfish from Publix had higher than acceptable limits.
Local restaurateur and fisherman Dewey Destin is familiar with similar groups who have been testing fish for the past 20-plus years. Sitting in his harbor side restaurant, Destin said that most of the swordfish and tuna that is eaten locally comes from the mouth of the Mississippi River, as opposed to the local Gulf.
“Only about 12 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from the U.S.,” he told The Log. “I’m not even sure if there are that many swordfish boats in the area.”
Destin said that he could pretty much guarantee that the fish purchased in the supermarkets didn’t come from the local area, and said that the advocacy group would have to find that out to help legitimize the study.
Furthermore, Destin said the federal government has no qualms about shutting down the fisheries when mercury levels reach a certain threshold.
He also said a marine agent from the National Marine Fisheries Services was down on the docks the other day taking samples and that she told him that “no significant toxin levels” had been reported on any fish caught in Destin.
“I’m happy to see the real local markets are below the limit,” he said.
Mercury is abundant in the environment and the largest source of mercury is from coal-fired power plants. Methylmercury accumulates in the water and is absorbed by plants and fish.
As smaller fish eat the plants and bigger fish eat them, the high levels of mercury builds up in the larger predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish.
Scientific studies have shown that methylmercury causes neurodevelopment effects in human, and small children and pregnant women are routinely discouraged from consuming large quantities of these fish.
While he knows that there are some adverse effects to eating large quantities of tuna and swordfish, Destin said that until the Gotmercury.org group has a baseline of what the mercury levels were prior to the study and prior to the BP oil spill, the current study is pointless.
“If they want a real study they would have that,” he said.
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