High Mercury Content in Bluefin Tuna Not Only Reason to Pass on the Sushi

Overfishing and poor oceans management are leading bluefin tuna to the brink of extinction


Katie Renshaw / Steve Roady, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 

Recent news reports and studies revealed dangerously high levels of mercury in bluefin tuna and other fish species. Government agencies have warned consumers to avoid eating foods with high mercury levels. And while eating too much of this fish may be bad for your health, it is also bad for dwindling bluefin tuna populations.

Bluefin tuna are a species in peril. Commercial overfishing and a poorly constructed government regulatory program are pushing the western Atlantic bluefin population towards collapse and even possible extinction. This amazing fish, which can grow up to 1,500 pounds, dive up to 3,000 feet in a matter of minutes, and traverse the Atlantic Ocean in just over a month, plays a crucial role in balancing the web of oceanic life.

“Eating bluefin tuna is bad for your health, but it’s also bad for the health of this species,” said Katie Renshaw, attorney with Earthjustice. “Government mismanagement has created a broken system where commercial fishers are taking advantage of legal loopholes that allow them to target bluefin on spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico when the remaining bluefin gather to breed. If we don’t act now, this species could disappear forever.”

Earthjustice, on behalf of Blue Ocean Institute and its president, author and scientist Carl Safina, have challenged in court the National Marine Fisheries Service’s failure to limit longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Longline fishing places thousands of baited hooks in the water, indiscriminately hooking fish, turtles and sometimes even birds. Bluefin tuna spawning in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are accidentally caught by these longline vessels. Because spawning bluefin are highly stressed, most hooked bluefin die even if they are released.

Longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico during bluefin spawning season depletes the bluefin population and cripples the potential of the bluefin to rebuild to a healthy level. Curtailing this threat would substantially protect this critically threatened species.

“Fisheries scientists have the capacity to sustainably manage bluefin fishing, but the economic and political will is lacking,” said Safina. “The U.S. must stop all catches of bluefin tuna on breeding grounds during spawning season and press for a five year Atlantic-wide moratorium on bluefin fishing.”

The litigation has been fully briefed and is currently awaiting judgment in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Last month, the New York Times reported that some samples of bluefin tuna sushi bought at local restaurants and grocery stores had dangerously high mercury levels. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin; even low levels of mercury exposure in utero or during early childhood can impair the ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 in every 6 women has mercury levels in her blood high enough to harm development in unborn children.

Oceana recently issued a report on mercury levels in popular fish and sushi that demonstrate the need for the Food and Drug Administration to post advice about seafood consumption in grocery stores and restaurants. The study found that mercury levels in fresh tuna are comparable to fish already included on the FDA’s “Do Not Eat” list.  

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