Atlantic Tilefish Are Absolved, F.D.A. advisory says ocean species low in mercury; fishermen vindicated

Originally published April 01, 2004

Tilefish caught in the Atlantic Ocean are safe to eat, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration's latest mercury-in-seafood advisory, which appeared on the agency's Web site on March 19. It took an industry-funded study and three years of lobbying, but on Tuesday morning, members of the Montauk Tilefish Association said they felt vindicated.
"We're keeping after this, but yes, this is a victory," said Lori Nolan, director of the tilefish association, whose four-vessel fleet supplies just under half of the 3.1 million pounds of the tilefish shipped to United States markets each year. In its advisory the F.D.A. now lists tilefish caught in the Atlantic next to other species low in mercury, and separately from tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, which are listed with fish having the "highest" levels of mercury.

Consumers might be confused, however. The F.D.A.'s "advisory" has two parts. The first is the general warning about what fish contain dangerous levels of mercury. The second part is a listing of species with their relative levels of mercury.

Ms. Nolan explained that Atlantic tilefish has been relisted in the second part as containing very low, safe levels of mercury. However, "tilefish" - with no distinction made as to its source - will remain on the F.D.A.'s general warning list for now.

"It's a matter of simplicity - because the advisory has to have the breadth of national advice," said Richard Acheson, the F.D.A.'s chief medical adviser, on Tuesday.

"If you buy a tilefish on Long Island, it's probably caught in the Atlantic. If you buy a tilefish on the gulf, it's a local fish. But, if you buy a tilefish in Chicago or Seattle, you don't know where it comes from." He added that making the distinction between gulf-caught tilefish and Atlantic-caught tilefish on the advisory had been decided against. "If it gets too complicated, people turn off," he said.

Ms. Nolan said her organization would work to get the good news about Atlantic tilefish to the public. It comes as the tilefish industry is smarting from the latest barrage of media stories warning consumers about the dangers of mercury in fish. The stories followed updated guidelines issued by the F.D.A. earlier this month that warned consumers not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, albacore tuna, and tilefish because of high levels of mercury the species are said to contain.

Pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and young children are especially at risk, according to the F.D.A.

Last December, when the agency updated its mercury-in-fish guidelines, it was criticized by consumer advocates for not stressing the danger posed by albacore tuna, a popular canned food, in its mercury advisories. In 2001, the F.D.A. urged that 12 ounces of fish, including tuna, should be eaten each week as part of a healthy diet. Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish were the exceptions.

Guidelines published as recently as February backed away from that recommendation and stressed the potential danger of albacore tuna, but did not correct what the Montauk Tilefish Association says was old and misleading information about tilefish. The association once again urged the F.D.A. to report its own findings and set the record straight, this time with the support of another federal agency.

Mercury is known to damage the nervous system, especially in fetuses and in young children. Its source is industrial pollution from coal-burning plants. Methyl mercury is formed when plant emissions drop from the atmosphere into the sea. Methyl mercury accumulates in the tissues of fish and passes up the food chain.

The Montauk Tilefish Association does not dispute the dangers of methyl mercury, but has taken issue with the F.D.A.'s continued listing of the species, beginning in 2001, in its risk guidelines. The mercury level in tilefish was put at 1.45 parts per million. The maximum allowed is 1 part per million. It took the tilefish association over a year, several attempts, and the cajoling of the National Marine Fisheries Service before the F.D.A. would reveal the source of the mercury-in-tilefish statistic.

The source turned out to be an analysis of only a few tilefish caught in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s, the F.D.A. said. According to Tom Hoff, a tilefish specialist with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, a spokesman for the F.D.A. admitted last year that it was possible the mercury pollution in the Gulf came from drill bit lubrication used on oil drilling rigs.

When pressed in December, Dr. Acheson, said the analytical data could not be located - for instance, the size of the sample fish that the 1.45 p.p.m. statistic was based on. The tilefish association argued that the species was not migratory, and that the golden tilefish its boats harvested - a species separate from those found in the Gulf of Mexico - were caught 100 miles at sea in from 80 to 130 fathoms (480 to 780 feet) of unpolluted water.

To prove the point, association members sent 20 tilefish ranging from 1.6 to 20 pounds to an independent laboratory approved by the F.D.A. to be tested. The tests showed an average of .08 parts per million of mercury, far below the F.D.A.'s listed level of 1.45 p.p.m.

The association complained to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, a federally authorized agency that regulates species caught off the mid-Atlantic states, including tilefish. As a result of pressure from the council and from the tilefish fishermen, the F.D.A. ran its own tests on tilefish caught off the northeastern U.S.

The results virtually matched those of the independent study, with a slightly higher average level of mercury, but well below a level that should concern consumers.

Nonetheless, the warnings about mercury in tilefish were not stricken from the agency's guidelines and appeared in the F.D.A.'s March warnings despite the efforts of the tilefish association and the intervention of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

In February, Daniel Furlong, executive director of the council, addressed a strongly worded letter to Robert Brackett, the F.D.A.'s director of the center for food safety and applied nutrition. "Like the F.D.A. and the E.P.A., the fishery management council is a science-driven organization that acts in a risk-averse manner," the letter said.

"Nonetheless, we raise objection to the listing of tilefish as a fish having high levels of mercury and respectfully request that prior to finalizing a joint F.D.A./E.P.A. revised advisory you consider the attached new information." The letter stated the findings of both the tilefish association test and the F.D.A.'s own analysis.

In a parting shot, Mr. Furlong wrote: "While loyalty to internal studies is understandable and admirable, it is forfeit when the principal investigators (the F.D.A.) cannot recreate their original work."

Ms. Nolan said she received a call from Dr. Acheson, of the F.D.A's food safety and security staff, who told her that the agency's advisory on mercury in fish and shellfish now made a distinction between Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico tilefish.

The latter would remain listed on the high mercury warning list, but the Atlantic tilefish, with its negligible mercury levels, would appear on a separate list of fish with low levels of mercury. A footnote will also appear stating that the low mercury levels in Atlantic tilefish were found in recent tests in 2002 and 2003.