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The catch is, should you eat it?
Robert H. Boyle
July 12, 1971
A scientist checks mercury levels at a tournament and ends up giving anglers some food for thought
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July 12, 1971

The Catch Is, Should You Eat It?

A scientist checks mercury levels at a tournament and ends up giving anglers some food for thought

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A bonito weighing 5� pounds exceeded the FDA limit with a reading of 0.80 ppm of mercury. "Bonito is not as choice as tuna," McDuffie said, "but when I get back home, I'm going to test some cans of bonito. They're right on the shelf at the supermarket next to the canned tunafish."

Flesh from a 200-pound blue shark, sometimes eaten by curious fishermen, was over the FDA limit with a reading of 0.58 ppm. A four-pound bluefish tested out at 0.49 ppm, just below the FDA limit; a 4�-pound blue was 0.60; a five-pounder 0.46; a six-pounder 0.59 and a 12-pounder 1.03 ppm. McDuffie wanted to find the fisherman who had caught the 12-pounder to tell him not to eat it, but the man was gone. "Ah, well," said McDuffie with a sigh. He added, "I feel sorry for people who make their living from these fish. It looks as though the blues and stripers are in the same category as swordfish."

McDuffie even tested several anglers for mercury by analyzing hair from their heads. One angler, who was a fairly frequent fish eater and who had recently feasted on a large catch of blues, had 5.7 ppm of mercury in his hair, while another angler who ate less fish had 1.7 ppm. McDuffie, who has been testing hair from people all across the country, was not alarmed. To one angler, he quipped, "It's all in your hair and not in your mind. The average among tuna and swordfish eaters that were tested was 8.8 ppm. Anything over 10 might indicate that you should have your blood level checked."

The results of McDuffie's testing are bound to stir up a furor. New York State authorities, for instance, have assured the public that fish offered for sale commercially are checked by the Department of Agriculture and Markets and must be below the FDA limits of 0.50 ppm. Yet stripers and blues caught off the South Shore of Long Island are regularly shipped to market. Last week, McDuffie mailed copies of his findings to New York State authorities, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the FDA. Commercial fishermen, already hard pressed by previous disclosures, are sure to become even more upset by the latest findings.

Some commercial fishermen are beginning to wonder if the mercury mess isn't a false alarm, somewhat like the cranberry scare of the late 1950s. "It's not at all like the cranberry business," McDuffie says. "That involved a trace of weed killer which had not yet been shown to be hazardous to humans. The concentration in these fish is high enough so that if you ate them every day, your body could build up to the symptom level. I am not trying to destroy an industry—but I would suggest that anyone who wants to eat several meals of game fish per week should stick to the smaller sizes."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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