The capsising appetite for seafood

How the Fukushima wastewater release feeds into greater issues around ocean health and the dietary reliance on fish.


This week China announced its ban on seafood imports from Japan in response to the decision to begin releasing radioactive wastewater from the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, beginning on Thursday. 

This process is expected to take about 30 years to complete and is due to the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 incident at Chernobyl. 

It has been met with fierce objections from consumers as well as regional countries. Some governments have strongly opposed the wastewater release, with many consumers in Asia hoarding seafood amid fears of future contamination. Japan has claimed that discharging the treated water is safe, but protestors argue in opposition and say it could have international impact. 

Prohibiting imports of seafood is a major step by Japan’s neighbours in a global region where these products are in escalating demand. The Chinese ban has renewed scrutiny over the general safety of consuming fish. Although radiation exposure levels are now a pivotal concern, it has been well understood for decades that oceanic pollution – including heavy metals and other toxins – has been present in seafood products and posing significant health risks to consumers.  

Fish consumption is promoted as a good source of omega-3 fats, which are unsaturated and anti-inflammatory, making them beneficial for heart and brain health. Fish is also regularly touted as a cleaner and healthier protein source compared to red meat, when in fact fish consumption is a leading dietary source of dangerous contaminants. 

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal and a concern related to fish consumption. A study by the  

Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine found that as much as 84 percent of the world’s fish contain unsafe levels of this deleterious element. The ocean is humanity’s sewer, and various other pollutants also accumulate in fish and shellfish. These pollutants have been linked to poor brain development, liver and immune system damage, even skin cancer, according to a study published in the journal Cancer Causes and Control. These substances are highly problematic because they are not readily expelled from the body and even short-term exposure can carry lifetime consequences. 

Given that the nutrients offered by eating fish can be obtained from other food sources, it might be time to question whether fish should be considered a healthy food source at all.  The research seems clear that it’s time for consumers who have other options to examine whether eating fish is worth the risk.

High levels of fat, and cholesterol along with a lack of fibre make fish a poor dietary choice for health reasons alone. Obtaining omega-3 from algae or seaweed (which is where the fish get it in the first place) might be a healthier option, and so too eating chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts, among other examples. Omega-3 can also be taken in supplement form.

Aside from health concerns, there are also environmental, sustainability and ethical concerns with fishing. Scientists around the world have been raising alarm bells about the rate at which fish are currently being harvested, suggesting that the populations will not be able to replenish themselves. Equally worrying are the protected species that are often the victims of bycatch – when other other marine creatures such as turtles, dolphins and sharks are trapped by commercial nets during fishing for a different species such as tuna or sardines.

The ocean produces half of the oxygen we breathe and damage to this life-sustaining ecology, exacted throughout by commercial fishing processes and pollution is an existential threat to human civilisation. 

Fish farming has been touted as a more sustainable way to meet the global demand for seafood, but it comes with a host of issues such as illnesses that can infect surrounding populations. This issue is dealt with by administering large quantities of antibiotics – which is another health concern that continues to worry medical professionals around the world (Insert link to a study or article in a major international news channel about overuse of antibiotics in factory fishing) . Fish are packed together in small areas and densely concentrated which can result in rapid water pollution. Fish farms ironically also contribute to the overfishing of wild species since many farmed species of fish are predatory, meaning they must be fed other fish to survive. 

The good news is that the food industry has been working on healthier, more sustainable and ethical options for decades, and improvements in taste and texture in recent years means that seafood lovers can now enjoy the same culinary experience, now made with plant-based sources.

In 2020 Nestlé made its first move into plant-based seafood with an alternative to tuna, and later shrimp. Companies in the U.S. with similar products include Good Catch and New Wave FoodsHook Foods is available in Europe and Hong Kong-based OmniFoods serves the Asian market. In South Africa, fish-analogue alternatives include vegan calamari by Dear Vegan, fish-style fillets by the Fry family Food Co., and crumbed soya ocean portions by Woolworths. Restaurant chain John Dory’s has a vegan sushi platter, with similar options available at Simply Asia.

Proveg International

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