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Great Lakes Article:

Canadians to test fish for mercury
Fisheries will focus on Great Lakes catch
By Sam Roe
Chicago Tribune
Published February 3, 2006

The Canadian fishing industry for the first time will conduct widespread testing for mercury in a variety of fish caught in the Great Lakes and sold in U.S. supermarkets.

Prompted by a recent Tribune investigation that found high mercury levels in Canadian walleye, the Ontario Commercial Fisheries' Association this week said that it will check fish in all major bodies of water in which its members operate.

For American consumers, the testing means tons of popular fish imported from Canada, including whitefish, lake trout, yellow perch and walleye, will get increased scrutiny.

In December, the Tribune reported that testing by the newspaper found that Canadian walleye sold in Chicago-area supermarkets was so tainted with mercury that the fish could be banned from sale in Canada. Some samples even exceeded the less stringent U.S. legal limit.

After the newspaper's report, orders for walleye "just dried up," said Peter Meisenheimer, executive director of the Ontario fishing association.

The industry, Meisenheimer said, could not assure customers that the walleye was safe because it had not done any testing, and monitoring by the Canadian government had been sporadic.

The walleye business has since rebounded, but the industry decided to take action to prevent future financial and public relations problems.

"It's in our best interest to do this and not depend on anyone else," he said.

Meisenheimer said the tests, which could begin this year, will cover Lake Erie, Lake Superior, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron and the St. Lawrence River. Besides mercury, the industry will check fish for PCBs and other pollutants. He said the association will oversee the testing and that experienced labs would do the analysis.

"This will be done to the highest professional standards," he said.

The industry has not yet decided whether it will release the results to the public, but Meisenheimer said the industry knows that if it found high mercury levels in fish "and didn't say anything, we would be in trouble."

U.S. consumer advocates, while welcoming the new testing program, called on the industry to disclose its findings.

"You can't have a testing program of this nature where it addresses a public health need and keep the information secret," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group based in Washington.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that can cause learning disabilities in children and neurological problems in adults.

The leading fishing industry group in the United States, the National Fisheries Institute, said it would not test fish for mercury.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the government body that regulates seafood and is the appropriate authority to test the commercial fish supply," the institute said in a statement.

The institute said it did not know how many of its members, if any, test their fish for mercury.

The U.S. Tuna Foundation, a lobbying group for canned tuna producers, said the tuna industry regularly tests its products for mercury, but it would not share its results with the Tribune.

For the Canadian industry, a pressing issue is determining which bodies of water are responsible for the high-mercury walleye.

Most of the Canadian walleye tested by the Tribune only said "wild Canada" on the labels. Canadian regulators report that much of the nation's walleye exports come from Lake Erie.

Canadian authorities have tested few Lake Erie walleye in recent years. Five samples were taken in 2000-01 and one last year. All were relatively low in mercury, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Testing of 150 samples of Lake Erie walleye in the late 1980s and 1990s showed average levels between 0.11 and 0.24 parts of mercury per million parts of fish tissue--well below the U.S. limit of 1.0 and the Canadian limit of 0.5. In the Tribune's tests, 18 walleye samples averaged 0.51 parts per million, with the highest sample measuring 1.74.

The Ontario fishing industry is interested in clearing Lake Erie's name because that is where many of its members catch fish. Meisenheimer speculated that the walleye the Tribune tested wasn't actually walleye. He said fishing companies have been known to sell a less expensive imitation of walleye, called zander, to supermarkets, and this fish might be higher in mercury.

Most of the walleye the Tribune tested was bought at Dominick's or Jewel supermarkets. Both grocery chains said that the walleye they sell are indeed walleye and that there have been no complaints to the contrary.

 

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