Yet Another Reason to Not Eat Whale Meat

A 15-year review of whale and dolphin meat in Japan found the majority had high levels of mercury.

Aug 31 2015, 11:00pm

Whale meat for sale at a store in Tokyo. Photo by JD/Flickr

We talk a lot about the environmental impacts of Japan's whaling industry, but a new report is shining a light on another, potentially devastating effect: the dangerously high levels of contaminants in the whale meat consumed in Japan.

A report published today by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental NGO based in the UK, found 56 percent of the whale and dolphin meat sold in Japan for consumption over the last 15 years had mercury levels above Japan's legal limits. In the last year, 100 percent of the 20 products they tested were above the limit.

"Japan suffered the world's worst outbreak of mass mercury poisoning in Minamata in the 1950s," pointed out Clare Perry, team leader of EIA's Oceans Campaign, via email. "It is incomprehensible that the Japanese government continues to fail to protect its citizens from mercury in foodstuffs that are no longer required or even popular."

In general, cetacean meat (that includes dolphins, porpoises, and whales) isn't very popular in Japan anymore. It's also illegal to kill whales, but Japan has managed to evade global regulations for years by claiming its hunts are conducted for scientific research, and that the meat is then sold in food markets after all the science has been done.

Last year, the UN cracked down on this practice, forcing Japan to end all whale hunts. Japan responded by filing a new request that included a lower killing quota, but the International Whaling Commission has yet to be convinced by the country's proposal.

Now, the EIA's report highlights how whale meat itself could be a health risk to consume. Perry explained that, because cetaceans are often apex predators and have large fat stores (blubber), they can accumulate high levels of contaminants. The debate over what level of mercury is safe to ingest is still up for debate, and Japan's limits are even higher than the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization. Yet the majority of the cetacean meat products the EIA tested had levels above even Japan's limits of 0.4ppm.

Since 2001, the EIA gathered samples of these products from major Japanese supermarkets like Aeon and online retailers like Amazon, and sent them to independent labs to test for contaminants. Of the 341 products tested, 56 percent had mercury levels higher than the government limit, with an average concentration of 1.7ppm. The highest level they found was a can of "whale" meat (DNA results found it was actually dolphin meat) that had 22.5ppm mercury concentration.

The levels of mercury and methylmercury found in cetacean products in the EIA's tests over the last 15 years. Source: EIA

Consuming high concentrations of mercury comes with some very real health risks. Studies have found eating foods with high mercury levels can impact fetal development, lowering a child's IQ, and can leave children more susceptible to infections. In adults, it's been linked to cardiovascular problems and even Parkinson's disease.

The EIA report also criticizes the Japanese government for not having more thorough and widespread education about the health risks associated with cetacean consumption and what levels are considered safe. The group is calling for an all-out ban of cetacean meat in Japan, which, if the International Whaling Commission holds out, might actually come to pass.