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Friday, June 8, 2012

Will Fukushima Save the Bluefin Tuna?

Cross-posted from Consumer Energy Report

From a story well worth reading in Forbes titled Fukushima Radiation May Actually Save Bluefin Tuna:
If the governments can’t help, maybe bad publicity will [save the bluefin tuna]. Nicholas Fisher, the study’s co-author and a marine biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says when he first saw the levels of radiation in the fish, caught off of San Diego, “my first thought was ‘this will do more for the conservation of this endangered animal than nearly anything else could.’”
Which is also the first thing I thought when this story first broke. And yes, I know that isn't a picture of a bluefin tuna. On the other hand, the Pacific blue fin is not the subspecies in trouble. It is the Atlantic version. Beware the laws of unintended consequences. When one species collapses we tend to increase pressure on what remains. If the public won't eat Pacific tuna, the pressure on Atlantic tuna may just get worse. From Wikipedia:

Global appetites for fish, especially Japanese appetite for sushi, is the predominant threat to Atlantic bluefin.

On the other hand, the public doesn't know one tuna variety from another, and few are going to bother memorizing which is which. If they get the mistaken impression that tuna has unsafe levels of radiation in it, to play it safe, they may chose to not eat tuna, regardless of type.One can only hope.

There are natural levels of radioactivity in the tuna, and Fukushima has only added the slightest amount more. (The report can be found here.) “But people are often anxious about radioactivity,” says Fisher. And this may be what ultimately benefits the Bluefin. The fish, Madigan points out, is not harmed by the radiation that they collected while swimming through the spill waters off the coast of Japan after the tsunami.
I listened to a story called "Radioactive tuna!" on NPR a few days ago. They had interviewed the head of a research team that identified Fukushima as the source of ceisum-134 and cesium-137 in Tuna caught off the coast of California. To be fair, they also mentioned that you would have to eat thousands of pounds of this tuna in one year to exceed a safe dose. They also mentioned that pregnant women have been warned for decades not to eat tuna because it contains elevated levels of mercury. Not mentioned was the source of much of that mercury--coal-fired power plants.

The researcher said that he'd been getting a phone call (including one from Al Jazeera) about every thirty seconds or so from media outlets looking for a story.

The NPR story elicited a very short retort titled Nuclear Tuna and Media Trivialization by a relatively high profile anti-nuclear activist. It's only a few hundred words long, conflates nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, contains numerous out of context quotes, and is devoid of a single source (not worth a read if you're considering it).

Radiation stories attract readership. I suspect that we're attracted to stories about danger and mayhem because at some level of consciousness, we are looking for information that may help protect ourselves and our loved ones from potential harm. This proclivity has no doubt served our species well for millennia, but in today's hopelessly complex technological world we are barraged with this kind of information and are often unable to sift the wheat from the chaff.

On the other hand, just last week a man went on a shooting spree and killed several innocent people a few blocks from my home, one of which was the mother of one of my daughters' classmates. Two years ago a man was murdered with an ax on the street one block from where my daughter was sitting in a classroom. Several years ago a bus driver was shot dead causing the bus to careen off a bridge, landing on the street I live on, just three blocks away. I could see why someone might develop a fear of going outside, sometimes called agoraphobia, but to get a case of radiophobia, you would need a lot of help from the media.

A lot of Americans have an excessive fear of flying, bugs, snakes, radiation, you name it, anyone one of which can kill you but the odds of any of them killing you are vanishingly low. How is it that we come to fear some things more than others? Fear is easily teachable. Parents can pass on a fear to their children, or not. My children have no fear of snakes, although they certainly know better than to handle a venomous one. I know people who are terrified of insects. My daughters love insects.

I suspect that the excessive fear of radiation started with nuclear weapons and was parlayed into a fear of nuclear energy by association thanks to anti-nuclear activists, some of which are likely motivated by personal phobias (an excessive, irrational fear).

Before the nuclear test ban treaty the United States alone detonated over 330 nuclear weapons (submerged in the ocean, buried underground, shot from canons, launched into space, you name it). The realization that all of the nuclear powers were repeatedly releasing all of that radiation into the environment is sobering but at the same time it puts into perspective just how out of perspective the public’s concerns are over radiation from nuclear power plants.

We've all read about the effects of massive doses of radiation on the victims of nuclear weapons on Japanese citizens. I recall reading the book Hiroshima by John Hersey when I was in grade school. After being told that the gods would favor anyone who made a thousand origami cranes, a little girl (just my age at the time of the reading) who was dying of leukemia made 600 of them before succumbing.

People have been taught to fear it by decades of post-apocalyptic science fiction (books and movies). My favorite (among many) post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories is A Canticle for Lebowitz. Anyone remember the movie On the Beach (1959 or 2000 versions)?

Note at this point that we're talking about radiation effects from nuclear weapons and other than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it's all fiction. Anti-nuclear activists learned early on the effectiveness of conflating nuclear weapons with nuclear energy. That's why just about every anti-nuclear article you read will mention nuclear weapons.

But then Chernobyl happened. The amount of concentrated radiation released by that accident dwarfed that released by a nuclear bomb, yet in the end it created Europe's largest nature preserve. Wildlife in the exclusion zone is thriving quite simply because the radiation is keeping people away.

I thought what biologists learned from Chernobyl was going to be the death knell for stories about mutants. However, the latest mutant horror flick, Chernobyl Diaries, has just been released.

It has been proposed by some (but not by me) that we could use this fear to keep humanity out of critical ecosystems by sewing them with low levels of radiation and posting warning signs around their periphery. Not a good idea. Profit motive will trump fear in this case and poor workers will be the ones used to exploit these areas, radiation or no radiation.

There are many carcinogens in our environment that can increase the incidence of cancers, including many viruses. Click here and scroll down to see the very extensive list.

When the quake hit Japan there was a virtual eruption of carcinogens into their environment from fires, exploding chemical plants, failed dams, polluted ocean sediments heaved up on the land, radiation from the stricken power plant, and on and on. Fukushima was just one of the thousands of sources. There may very well be a modest uptick in cancer rates from this quake from the many sources of carcinogens, but the latest research suggests that the contribution from Fukushima alone will be too small to detect.

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