We love a good disaster. There’s nothing like imminent doom to glue us to our news outlets. The media certainly loves hysteria.
The Fukushima disaster is still popping up in the news almost three years after the accident. In March 2011, an earthquake triggered a meltdown in Japan’s nuclear facility, causing tens of thousands of terabequerels of radioactive substances to contaminate the surrounding land and leak into the oceans. New leaks have recently been reported, and the process of decommissioning the plant will likely take decades. Disposal sites are yet to be pinned-down and Japan’s current government is determined to maintain nuclear power as Japan’s best option for energy.
In other parts of the world, panic about contaminated seafood abounds. After reports that radiation has arrived on the West coast of Canada and the US, many people fear that we will never be able to eat Pacific seafood again. So how will the radioactivity affect marine life? Will our sushi habits turn us into mutant monsters or less dramatically, cause cancer?
Since the disaster, scientists have been measuring the levels of radioactivity in aquatic life around Japan, and all the way across the Pacific Ocean. Depending on what you read, there are differing results. An article in Live Science from August 2013 states that:
Several species of fish caught off the coast of Fukushima in 2011 and 2012 had cesium levels that exceeded Japan’s regulatory limit for seafood, but the overall cesium levels of ocean life have dropped since the fall of 2011.
On the other hand, Dr Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician and anti-nuclear advocate wrote an article in RT, in which she predicts that there will be more catastrophic outcomes from Fukushima and that:
The US and Canadian governments must forthwith ban imported food from Japan, unless each batch is monitored for contamination, and the food grown in the US and Canada needs to be effectively monitored pending another major accident.
While the science shows that we don’t have too much to worry about, I actually hope that this accident will make the larger species of fish (which end up containing more radioactivity as they eat smaller fish) less popular on the menu. Perhaps then, we will give the tuna and swordfish populations a chance to regenerate: radioactive or not. One greatly surprising aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 is that the ‘Zone of Alienation’ – the fallout zone around the power plant – has now become a wildlife sanctuary due to the absence of humankind in the area. While radiation certainly has ill-effects on health, they are no worse than other results of human activities.
For instance, while cesium was present in the fish, it doesn’t accumulate up the food chain the way polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or mercury do. Mercury and PCBs stay in an animal’s tissues for long periods, so when a tuna eats smaller fish, it takes in all the chemicals those small fish have eaten. Cesium tends to be excreted from animals much faster. (1)
The level of contamination of pacific marine life is still being studied. However, what is clear is that there are numerous variables. Whether you’re looking at fish, invertebrate, mammal or seaweed make a huge difference, and moreover, are these species bottom feeders or living in the open ocean? Mammals tend to be more sensitive to radiation than other species, while invertebrates and seaweeds tend to be very hardy. So while we may benefit from avoiding the contaminated marine life (fish, seaweed, etc), perhaps they’ll go on thriving.
Is that the silver lining? I, for one, will avoid eating Pacific seafood in the near future. Regardless of the safety of marine life for human consumption, we still need to give the larger fish species a chance to regenerate. Perhaps, if we imagine ourselves growing extra limbs, we will be less likely to buy tuna or swordfish. Hopefully then, as with Chernobyl, the aftermath of Fukushima won’t be all bad.