Saturday, October 31. 2009
Pilot whale meat on sale in the Faroe Islands
Back in the mid 1990s, WDCS was looking at how we could help move the whaling debate forward and we decided to focus some efforts on the issue of food security. Not in the sense of how much food is out there, but how were the authorities in the so-called ‘whaling nations’ actually dealing with issues of potential contaminants in whale products.
What we found was staggering. It seemed that whilst there was a potential issue, the ‘red mist’ that seemed to come across the eyes of the various governments every time whaling was mentioned was blocking them seeing the emergent evidence regarding this area of threat.
WDCS had originally looked at this issue in the Faroe Islands, where consumption of pilot whales and other toothed whales placed the local Faroese people potentially at threat from contaminants. Indeed in 1998, having recognized that environmental pollutants such as mercury (Hg) and PCBs enter the body of pregnant women via pilot whale products, causing potentially serious developmental damage to their infants, the government of the Faroe Islands issued the following recommendations to the public.
• Adults should only eat blubber and meat once or twice a month;
• Girls and women should not eat blubber until they have given birth to all their children;
• Meat should not be eaten within three months of planned pregnancy and not eaten at all by pregnant and nursing women; and
• Organs (e.g. liver and kidney) should not be eaten at all.
In June 1999 the New Scientist Magazine
ran an article reporting that, ‘The study of children born in the Faroe Islands that previously revealed neurological problems linked to pollution exposure (the main dietary source of which was whale meat) has now discovered another impact on health. Further analysis of the data of the group of 917 children shows that those exposed to higher levels of mercury in the womb also had significantly higher blood pressure.’
WDCS’s Mark Simmonds was quoted as saying, ‘For many years the levels of pollutants in the pilot whales killed in the Faroe Islands have been known to be a considerable threat to the health of the islanders. Mercury and various organic pollutants exceed health safety standards. It should not therefore come as a surprise that health impacts can be detected.’
In 2008 the Faroese Health authorities finally moved to advise ‘Islanders to stop eating pilot whale meat immediately, because of dangers to their health’.
The Faroese Prime Minister , Kaj Leo Johanessen issued an extremely brief statement regarding the situation: which appeared to say that ‘The Faroese PM, Kaj Leo Johannesen has today sent to the Faroese Health department the following note
, concerning the matter of pilot whales, saying, “..thank you for the letter of the 13th November 2008 from the National Health Office which has informed on the latest news on pilot whales as human food".
The Faroe Islands' Government deserve credit for their initial warnings in 1998 but why did it take so long for them to take action to protect all its population? And why are small dolphins and whales still being killed and eaten in the islands after this warning was issued? Was it because some of the information came from anti-whaling groups originally? Were the political consequences of not taking action deemed to be acceptable? It seems amazing that whilst WDCS and others were raising this issue, Faroese health officials were also concerned enough to raise it back in 1988 and even issue warnings.
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. I have recently written on the issue of Greenlandic diet and contaminants ....so don’t intend to expand on it here - but it does seem to be a similar story of political foot dragging whilst concern grows.
Back in 1999 Frank Cipriano and Steve Palumbi had also been looking at identifying whale products on sale in Japan using new genetic techniques. These pioneering methods opened up the opportunity of seeing what identifiable products also contained contaminants.
In 1999 a group of researchers
from Daiichi College of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Fukuoka, Japan, Harvard University in the United States and the University of Greenwich submitted a document to the Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry and the Fisheries Agency to request them to take measures to address the problem. The group feared that consumption of whale meat could result in health problems. Later a series of papers detailing the levels of contaminants found in whale and dolphin meat samples (and which species these came) from were published in the international and national scientific press. These papers – which were available for all to see included one entitled “Human health significance of organochlorine and mercury contaminants in Japanese whale meat” which was published in 2002 in the Journal of Toxicology & Environmental Health
(Part A: Current Issues 65 (17): 1211-1235) and published by M. P. Simmonds; K. Haraguchi; T. Endo; F. Cipriano; S. R. Palumbi; G. M. Troisi
At the 51st annual IWC that year WDCS and the Swiss Coalition for the Protection of Whales (SCPW
) presented to the IWC evidence
that genetic and toxicological studies undertaken in Japan earlier this year by scientists from Harvard University and two Japanese toxicology laboratories provide overwhelming and alarming evidence that Japanese consumers who believe they are buying whale meat, are being tricked into consuming dolphin and porpoise meat so contaminated it that was unfit for human consumption.
WDCS said at the time that ‘the Government of Japan must be aware that around 1,800 tonnes of unacceptably contaminated meat from dolphins and porpoises are entering the human food chain in Japan each year. If the Government ignores our evidence of widespread deception, fails to warn consumers that any cetacean meat, no matter how it is labeled or described, could be highly contaminated, and continues to promote whale meat as a healthy food, it will be complicit in an appalling fraud on the innocent public’.
In 2001 WDCS revealed that Norwegian authorities were expressing concerns
over potential contaminant levels.
In 2002, the Asahi Shinbun
challenged the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research (the body that carries out Japan’s so called scientific whaling) of hiding the fact that whale products had to be treated before sales to avoid contaminants.
In May 2003, the news agency, Reuters reported that growing concerns in Norway over pollution levels in whale meat, as well as blubber ,has led to new warnings for certain people not to eat whale meat. This followed on from previous statements on blubber consumption."Our advice is that pregnant women and mothers who are breast feeding should not eat whale meat,"
Janneche Utne Skaare, deputy director of the National Veterinary Institute and a scientist on the panel, told Reuters.
In the years that followed, the numbers of scientific papers on this issue began to grow - and more-and-more people became concerned to the point where even officials in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, were willing to speak out
Now in October 2009 Hiroshi Hasegawa, writing in AERA Magazine
(issues dated 26/10/2009 - No.51\380 published by the leading Asahi Shimbun) talks of the failure of Japanese officials to appropriately investigate the threat of Mercury contamination in Taiji.
Hasegawa reports that this summer, ‘the National Institute for Minamata Disease (NIMD) which was established in Minamata city, Kumamoto Prefecture in 1978
[and is now part of the Ministry of Environment] took hair samples from the local residents in Taiji, a small town of 3530 (as of August) in the Higashimuro district of Wakayama Prefecture to determine mercury levels.’
This was the first time that NIMD has targeted a specific area outside of the Minamata region for such a large undertaking.
Whilst Hasegawa reports that MIMD did not diagnose ‘Minimata Disease’, the reporter is critical that ’the examination itself was outside standard neurologically based testing standards that take the brain deteriorating effects of methyl lmercury poisoning into account.’
The actual result were found to be ‘total mercury levels (90% of total mercury is methyl mercury) of the hair samples ranged from 3.60ppm to 86.30ppm, showing that all samples exceed average male and female mercury levels established by the aforementioned nationwide testing, in some cases extremely. Additionally, the total mercury level of toothed whale meat was a staggering 3.08 to 161.50 times the provisional regulation of “0.4ppm” set by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1973 regarding total mercury levels in seafood.’
The journalist states that when they questioned the authorities on why appropriate tests were not applied to detect the brain deteriorating effects of methyl mercury, ‘All those seated appeared to become tense’.
..with ‘no explanation given as to why the tests (e.g. the two point discrimination tests) in question were not carried out.’
The article concludes that ‘The Ministry for the Environment can’t be Trusted’.
In a concluding paragraph of this extensive article, Hasegawa states ‘Judging from the unscientific examinations that continue to be carried out, I am inclined to believe that the Ministry for the Environment should not be trusted to handle the mercury problem faced by coastal whaling bases such as Taiji. I don’t believe that anything will be solved until the central government confronts the problem head-on from an independent standpoint.’
Whaling is just not that important that people’s lives should be at risk. When we helped get this ball rolling in 1999 we didn’t realize it would take so long for Governments to get to grips with the issue. We also never contemplated that the health of people would be potentially still be being used as pawns as Governments try to avoid taking action on whaling.
Wake up Japan and the other so-called 'whaling nations', - there is more at stake than your pride now!