to test fish for mercury
Fisheries will focus on Great Lakes catch
By Sam Roe
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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.