Japanese whale meat 'contaminated with mercury'

Posted: 12 June 2003

Mercury-contaminated whale, dolphin and porpoise products are widely available in Japan's shops and fishmarkets, according to a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

The report, released in the week preceding the 55th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), provides evidence that Japanese consumers face serious health risks when they eat whale and dolphin products on sale in Japan. Chemical analyses of 58 meat and blubber samples purchased from Japanese supermarkets revealed that government-permitted levels for mercury were exceeded in 62 per cent of products.

Clare Perry, EIA's Senior Cetacean Campaigner, said "The Government of Japan has been aware of the dangerously high levels of mercury in whales, dolphins and porpoises for several decades, but has taken no action to protect the consumers".

Whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans) are susceptible to accumulating toxins like mercury, as they are long-lived and feed at high trophic levels. Mercury is a potent neuro-toxin, and scientists have found that even low concentrations can cause damage to nervous systems. Developing foetuses and children are especially at risk.

According to Japanese news articles, the Government of Japan is currently considering warning the public over the potential health problems associated with mercury levels in migratory fish. Yet they've taken no action over the consumption of cetacean products, which can contain mercury levels ten to hundreds of times higher than those commonly found in migratory fish.

Ban called for

EIA is urging the Government of Japan to immediately ban the sale of whale, dolphin and porpoise meat; to issue public health warnings recommending that pregnant and breastfeeding women and children stop eating these products; and to implement a complete ban on the hunting of coastal cetaceans.

Clare Perry stated, "As long as cetaceans are hunted in Japan's coastal waters, their meat and blubber will be available to the Japanese public, most of whom are unaware of what they are eating and the fact that it may be contaminated. The public should not be made to suffer because of their government's ruthless and inexplicable campaign to resume commercial whaling on a global scale."

More than 400,000 dolphins, porpoises and small whales (collectively termed as 'small cetaceans') have been killed in Japanese waters in the last 20 years. The EIA says the hunts are contrary to the recommendations of the IWC and its Scientific Committee, and contradict the Government of Japan's frequently stated claim that it pursues a policy of 'sustainable utilisation of marine resources'.

  • In a separate report on June 23, 2003, the EIA joined with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) and the Humane Society of the United States to confirm claims that whale and dolphin meat is being sold in Japan as pet food. "The fact that Japan is using whale meat for pet foods totally invalidates Japan's attempts to legitimise and increase their catches" said Clare Perry of EIA.

    From March 2001 to February 2003, EIA purchased 58 cetacean products on sale in Japanese super-markets and fishmarkets across 13 prefectures of Japan. The average mercury level was 2.05ppm (parts per million), more than five times the maximum allowable level set by Japan. The average concentration of methylmercury was 1.13ppm, nearly four times the maximum allowable levels. All products identified as small cetaceans products by DNA analysis exceeded government guidelines for mercury or ethylmercury contamination.

    However, the Japanese Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare (JMHLW) has failed to adequately warn Japanese consumers about the serious health risks they face when they eat these products, stated the Environmental Investigation Agency (12th December 2003).

    Related link:

    Read the full report: Mercury Rising - the sale of polluted whale, dolphin and porpoise meat in Japan