Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Conservation's Indirect Strategy: mercury levels in Japanese could effect change

The strategy of reporting on the health impact on humans brought about by the consumption of endangered ocean species continues to gain momentum as a viable approach for garnering public awareness. The Ocean Preservation Society, who produced the award-winning documentary The Cove, is spreading the word about a recent article in The Japan Times about mercury levels in the whale and dolphin meat that is consumed by the people of Taiji, where much of The Cove takes place.

Taiji is known for its capture and bloody harvest of dolphins and small whales - either for aquariums or for human consumption. While there has been much government intervention to manipulate the media and downplay the event, at least one brave Taiji council member moved to have the meat tested. He was eventually shunned and left Taiji, but the testing continued and the results have been reported in some segments of the media who have resisted government pressure.

According to the Kyodo News and The Japan Times, it was found that the people of Taiji, who consume dolphin and whale meat, have mercury levels that are as much as 10 times higher than the Japanese norm. Children, who can be very susceptible to the neurological effects of
mercury, were going to school every day only to dine on contaminated dolphin meat as part of the town's school lunch program. Fortunately, the program has now discontinued serving dolphin meat.

Pelagic animals like whales, dolphins, tuna, swordfish, and sharks, unfortunately are able to retain pollutants deep in their tissues. Although mercury seems to be one of the most worrisome agents, other pollutants have been found, including DDT, and other pesticides, in addition to several other industrial chemicals that enter the ocean either directly or from discharge into the atmosphere (which then eventually falls into the sea).

While health threats against mankind might be the impetus needed to produce change in environmental or ecological policy, it seems sad that it has to come to that. It illustrates our self-centered behavior when it's not enough that the atmosphere is being altered or that species are being endangered by over-harvesting or loss of habitat - instead, it takes a direct negative effect on ourselves for us to sit up and take notice.

Perhaps it's academic; it's just human nature and we should use it to our best advantage. Shark conservationists are using mercury poisoning to drum up concern over the demand for shark products; climate change proponents are using documented changes in agricultural output and drought conditions in Africa and the related loss of life to make their case; and groups like GotMercury.org put out information on the pollutant levels in over-fished species like swordfish, tuna, and others. It seems to be a strategy that has potential for generating real change. The problem is that when that change comes to protect mankind from himself, where will the plant and animals, the ocean, land and air be by then? Will it already have been too late?

Read article in Japan Today/Kyodo News.

No comments: