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Seafood School | Astoria, Oregon | Health | Albacore Tuna safe to eat

Health: Albacore

Astoria research finds local albacore is very safe to eat
Wednesday, February 04, 2004
By Kathryn B. Brown
East Oregonian Publishing Group

Details announced amid focus on mercury levels
Research done in Astoria is gaining national attention amid discussion of mercury content in fish.

Michael Morrissey, director of the Oregon State University Seafood Laboratory in Astoria, presented his research on the mercury content of albacore tuna at a major conference in San Diego, Calif, last week.

His findings were good news for West Coast albacore fishermen and those who enjoy locally caught albacore tuna.

The annual National Forum on Contaminants in Fish provides an opportunity for fish biologists, toxicologists, environmental scientists and public health experts to gather and discuss the latest research related to contaminants in fish and shellfish. Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were joined by state, local and tribal representatives.

The EPA and FDA are finalizing a joint National Mercury Advisory, to be released this spring. Research shows that certain species of fish - especially shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel - have mercury levels which can be harmful, especially if consumed by pregnant women and young children. High levels of mercury can damage the developing brain of a fetus or child. The mercury advisory may also warn that although tuna is safe to eat, mercury levels are higher in tuna steaks and canned albacore tuna compared with canned “light” tuna.

Most studies of mercury levels in canned tuna were done on the major brands available in the United States, such as Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist, according to Morrissey of the OSU Seafood Lab. Albacore caught in the South Pacific for these large canneries usually weigh 40 to 60 pounds. Their mercury level averages 0.36 parts per million.

Morrissey and his fellow researchers, Tomoko Okada and Rosalee Rasmussen, found that troll-caught albacore harvested from waters off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington are smaller -10 to 24 pounds - and average only 0.14 parts per million of mercury, well below the EPA limit of 1 part per million.

Low mercury, troll-caught fish from the West Coast often end up in microcanneries, such as Josephson’s Smokehouse in Astoria. The canned albacore is sold locally and to stores through the region. Some is sent to gourmet markets in Europe.

Morrissey points out that these troll-caught albacore have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than most canned tuna, which is beneficial from a health standpoint.

Omega-3 fatty acids protect against heart disease, in part by lowering blood pressure and reducing triglyceride levels. Fish is the primary source of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets.

The Seafood Lab’s study should reassure consumers who are concerned about mercury levels in locally-caught tuna, but Morrissey worries that this information might get lost in the wake of a national mercury advisory.

“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says. “The advisory focuses on women of childbearing age and children.” But he is concerned that the public will mistakenly believe that everyone should reduce their fish consumption as a result.

“This would unnecessarily and wrongfully penalize the healthy albacore microcannery industry that has popped up in the last five to seven years.”

Salmon are also high in omega-3 fatty acids and very low in mercury, Morrissey added.