Has Fukushima Contaminated All the Fish in the Pacific?

Tamarindo is a fishing town. Fishing boats bob on moorings in the bay, shore birds fish from the rocks and pelicans dive into the water or glide by in undulating V-formations.  Pangas buzz the shoreline in the early morning, picking up supplies and fishermen from the beach – some headed out for a day of sport fishing for marlin or sailfish, others out to catch dinner. There are always men with hand lines waist deep in Tamarindo Bay, and others with rod and reel fishing from the rocky shores of Playa San Francisco. Our days end with magnificent sunsets and the view of pangas trailed by flocks of seagulls, racing the last light back to moorings in the bay.

Seafood is a big part of our diet, so the recent news that the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan is still leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean more than two years after meltdown is cause for concern.  Alarming articles posted on social media websites question the safety of all seafood caught in the Pacific.  Worse still, scientists estimate that debris from the tsunami will hit the west coast of the United States early next year, and that radiation will continue to travel through the Ocean for at least 10 years.

NOAAI like to eat fish, so I started my own investigation into whether or not fish caught in Costa Rican waters are safe for human consumption.  I was particularly freaked out by the map posted on Facebook, accompanied by this ominous caption: Your Days of Eating Pacific Ocean Fish are Over. The map (allegedly created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has scary red and orange flames emanating from the Fukushima plant into the entire Pacific Ocean!  NOAA issued the following statement in response to the panic caused by the map’s worldwide distribution:  “This image was created by NOAA’s Center for Tsunami Research and graphically shows maximum wave heights (in centimeters or cm) of the tsunami generated by the Japan earthquake on March 11, 2011. It does NOT represent levels of radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. For more information please visit the original image and background information at http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311.”

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reported on a panel discussion held at the Taste of Los Angeles: Is our Seafood Safe to Eat?   The article’s author, Russ Parsons,  exchanged emails with Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who is leading an international team tracking Fukushima´s trails through the Pacific.  Dr. Buesseler has studied 1000s of samples from fish throughout the ocean.  He and other scientists have found radiation up to 600 km off Japan´s coast.  In his opinion, the amount of radiation found thus far does not pose a risk to humans or marine life.  (According to a distance calculator on the internet, proximate distance as the crow flies {or the tuna swims?} from Fukushima Japan to Guanacaste Costa Rica is 7970 miles or 12823.73 kilometers.)

Parsons’s article links to a FAQ on the WHOI website that addresses many areas of the contamination issue, and summarizes:

— Although coastal fisheries within 100 miles of Fukushima remain closed, and contamination is a risk there, especially for bottom-feeding fish, “because of the dilution that occurs even a short distance from Fukushima, we do not have a concern” about radioactive contamination of fish off the West Coast of the U.S.

— Some claim that migratory species of top predators such as Pacific bluefin tuna might be especially at risk, but Buesseler rejects that, saying that the radioactive elements the fish might have absorbed will be diluted from swimming in less-affected waters.

— There is concern, Buesseler says, about the continuing leakage of some radioactive substances, such as strontium-90. “It is taken up by and concentrated in bones, where it remains for long periods of time…. If leaks of strontium-90 continue, this radionuclide could become a larger concern in small fish such as sardines, which are often eaten whole.” But at this point, levels are relatively low.

— What about when ocean currents push irradiated water and debris to the West Coast, which is forecast to happen sometime this year? “Levels of any Fukushima contaminants in the ocean will be many thousands of times lower after they mix across the Pacific and arrive on the West Coast of North America sometime in late 2013 or 2014. This is not to say that we should not be concerned about additional sources of radioactivity in the ocean above the natural sources, but at the levels expected even short distances from Japan, the Pacific will be safe for boating, swimming, etc.”

— Furthermore, “debris washed out to sea by the tsunami does not carry Fukushima radioactive contamination — I’ve measured several samples in my lab. It does, however, carry invasive species, which will be of serious concern to coastal ecosystems on the West Coast.”

According to a recent article in MSN News, Pacific Blue Fin Tuna caught in San Diego have tested positive for radiation (5477 miles or 8812.49 Kilometers away – that tuna traveled!)  “I wouldn’t tell anyone what’s safe to eat or what’s not safe to eat,” researcher Daniel Madigan of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station told Reuters. “It’s become clear that some people feel that any amount of radioactivity, in their minds, is bad and they’d like to avoid it. But compared to what’s there naturally … and what’s established as safety limits, it’s not a large amount at all.”

So what does that mean for those of us living in Central America?  I took some comfort from another map issued by NOAA projecting how debris from the tsunami is expected to travel, assuming it stays in the main ocean surface currents.  The map shows the debris traveling clockwise toward the coast of the Americas from Alaska to Baja California and then moving back towards Asia. Currents and prevailing winds mean that fallout and debris should remain confined to the Northern Hemisphere.  According to a few web sites, the safest areas of origin for food products are Central America, South America and Africa.  However, there is always a caveat about consuming the large predators because they migrate throughout the Pacific.

I have decided, until further notice, to continue to eat local fish.  I will be more vigilant about the origin of any canned fish I might consume, especially tuna and sardines.  And when we travel to the US, I will probably not eat tuna – but then again, I never eat tuna in California.  Less disturbing is salmon.  I really like salmon and look forward to eating it whenever I am in the US.  A recent article in the Huffington Post quotes Dr. David Welch, a world expert on salmon migratory patterns.  “Salmon from Japan do not migrate as far as the North American coast”, he says, “and likewise, our North American species do not migrate as far west as Japan’s coastal waters. Mackerel, another migratory species, also don’t cross the Pacific, he says. Instead, they travel up and down the coast.”

Fish really do go with the flow….

Travels of Terry the Tuna

Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.

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