Recreational anglers may be getting more than they bargain for in the fish they hook, according to the international ocean conservation group Oceana.
The group partnered with the 73rd annual Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo last July to sample fish for mercury levels. Oceana's report provides data on 190 fish from 30 commonly landed species and presents results from its survey of fish preferences and consumption rates among Rodeo attendees.
"Coastal residents have higher levels of mercury than people who live inland, and anglers and their families are also at higher risk of mercury exposure," said Jacqueline Savitz, director of Oceana's Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination.
"We wanted to let anglers know which fish are high in mercury, and which are lower, so they can decide what they want to bring home for dinner."
In some species, high mercury levels were eye-opening.
King mackerel, barracuda, cobia (ling), and bonito (little tunny) all had mercury levels exceeding 1 part per million (ppm), on average, the level at which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can take legal action to remove a product from the market and at which Alabama and Mississippi issue advisories for no consumption.
However, no Gulf state except Florida has issued such an advisory for cobia, bonito or barracuda.
Ten additional species averaged above 0.5 ppm, the level at which Florida and Louisiana issue consumption advisories. These included Spanish mackerel, blackfin tuna, amberjack, black drum, gag grouper, wahoo, bluefish, gafftopsail catfish, crevalle jack, and ladyfish. Florida has issued limited consumption advisories for all of these species.
Other key findings from the report include:
• The highest mercury levels in individual samples were from the two king mackerel (3.97 and 3.56 ppm), followed by a cobia (3.24 ppm).
• Five of the fish species had the highest mercury levels for individual fish ever recorded for the Gulf, based on available Gulf data. These included (in ppm): a cobia (3.24), an amberjack (1.57), a bonito (1.60), a yellowfin tuna (0.60), and a hardtail (0.83).
• The most frequently consumed fish from the survey - snappers, groupers, and yellowfin tuna - averaged in the low- to mid-range for mercury in this study. However, other Gulf data sources are woefully lacking for red snapper and yellowfin tuna.
• The lowest average mercury levels were observed in flounder, dolphin (mahi mahi), vermilion snapper, tripletail (blackfish), and gray triggerfish.
Recreational anglers are the hardest hit by mercury contamination in fish, according to the federal government. In 2004, 45 of the 50 states issued mercury advisories for recreationally caught fish. However, many of the high-mercury fish found in this study are not covered by these advisories.
A federal report issued in 2004 called the Gulf of Mexico an area of concern for mercury contamination in seafood.
"The report gives us a clearer idea of how much mercury is in Gulf fish species, and it highlights lower-mercury fish like dolphin and flounder that are good choices for anglers to feed their families. It's also a wake-up call showing us where more monitoring is critically needed," said Kim Warner, Oceana's Marine Pollution Scientist.
"We could never have compiled such a wide analysis of mercury levels in Gulf fish if not for the invaluable help of Rodeo organizers and anglers."
Oceana is campaigning to reduce the amount of mercury that can get into seafood by lobbying nine remaining manufacturing plants that still use mercury-cell technology to produce chlorine to convert to modern, mercury-free technology. Seven of the nine plants are within the Gulf of Mexico watershed.
Oceana is also campaigning to persuade supermarkets nationwide to post warning signs wherever fish under an FDA mercury advisory are sold.
For most people, the group says, fish is the number one source of mercury exposure.
Mercury can cause serious health problems, especially in children. An EPA scientist has estimated that one in six pregnant women has enough mercury in her blood to pose risks, such as brain damage, to her developing baby.
In the United States, the EPA and the FDA caution women of childbearing age and children to limit the amount and types of fish they eat, due to the risk of mercury poisoning. Governments around the world have issued similar warnings.