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Report: Eat all the salmon you want, but leave sharks off the menu

Kyle Hopkins
Adolph Pleasant, 34, of Quinhagak caught this 7-foot, 4-inch salmon shark on July 10, 2009, while halibut fishing in Kuskokwim Bay. Adult salmon sharks average 6 1/2 to 8 feet in length and 300 to 500 pounds, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. New research suggests that salmon sharks, due to a high level of mercury, are among the few Alaska fish species that shouldn't be consumed daily.

The species of Alaska fish that are considered safe to eat every day, even by pregnant women and small children, has more than doubled based on expanded research by the state Division of Public Health

All five species of Alaska salmon, halibut weighing 40 pounds or less when caught and the countless Alaska pollock sold as frozen fish sticks all have relatively low amounts of mercury, according to new and ongoing state research. The Health Department published updated guidelines for safe levels of fish consumption Monday.

The state began testing samples of seafood for mercury and other risky contaminants in 2001 and started testing for traces of the toxic metal in Alaska women of childbearing age in 2002. As of March, 1,145 women from 148 Alaska communities had shared hair samples with an Anchorage-based lab for analysis. Only four of the women, 0.3 percent, showed mercury levels that the Section of Epidemiology considers a health concern.

In 2007, the state listed 11 species of fish that were safe to eat in any amount for women and children. This week, that number expanded to 23 species, based on growing efforts to sample fish across the state. The fish aren't necessarily safer than they were seven years ago, but state health experts know more about the impact of eating Alaska fish on residents and are clearing more and more species for unlimited consumption.

“Men, older women, women who cannot or do not want to become pregnant really do not need to worry about much,” said Ali Hamade, an environmental public health program manager for the state. 

Small children and women who plan to have children or already pregnant should limit certain fish in their diets to avoid overconsumption of mercury, a metal that can damage developing brains, the state says. New guidelines recommend, for example, eating only a single serving a week of a halibut weighing 220 pounds or more when caught. 

Steer clear of salmon shark

Among the species with the highest risk for elevated mercury levels is the salmon shark.

With skin like sandpaper, these sharks are named for their preferred food source and look a little like great whites. They average 6 1/2 to 8 feet in length and weigh 300 to 500 pounds. Long lives spent preying on other fish means the sharks might have more mercury than other species and should be eaten with caution, the state says.

They also taste a little like a tenderloin Chateaubriand, red and rich, said Ted Herlinger, who once wrote a recipe for salmon shark barbecue sauce for the Anchorage Daily News. Eat sharks fresh or don’t eat them at all, he warned at the time.

Herlinger tried salmon shark just once, in 1975 in Ketchikan. It was a 6-footer caught by a halibut fisherman and sliced into about 200 1-inch steaks. He doesn’t regret a thing.

“I’ve eaten Alaska fish at least twice a week, often three times a week, for 40 years. I don’t have any of the symptoms of mercury poisoning,” Herlinger said.

“In the mid-'70s the cold storage in Petersburg refused to buy our large halibut till they were tested for mercury," he said. If the fish tested positive, the fishermen received nothing. 

“We dumped out large halibut overboard right in front of the bastards,” he said.

Benefits and detriments of fish

Fish are an important source of food and money in Alaska, particular for rural villages and hub cities. Health officials here are eager to encourage families to continue eating fresh fish rather than processed foods in hopes of warding off diabetes and other modern ailments.

If mothers don’t eat enough fish, it can affect how their children “behave, learn, think and solve problems later in life, particularly when fish is replaced with low-nutrition foods,” according to the updated “Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans” report from the Division of Public Health.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has boosted research of contaminants in Alaska fish by teaming with federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Fish and Game and commercial fishermen to increase the number of animals tested, said Robert Gerlach, Alaska state veterinarian.

Seven years ago, the year of the last report on safe eating guidelines for fish, the state sampled 2,215 fish representing 23 species. The new recommendations are based on more than twice that number of samples, from 53 species.

In addition to mercury, important contaminants found in fish worldwide include “persistent organic pollutants” like pesticides, as well as biological toxins.

“Fortunately, most Alaska fish contain very small concentrations of POPs that are too low to pose a substantial threat to the public’s health,” the state bulletin says.

The Public Health Division recommends eating fish at least twice a week. Salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to improve cholesterol and fight heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The new consumption guidelines apply to fish that are caught in Alaska waters. They also address species that are not caught here but might be a staple of many Alaska diets, such as canned tuna.

The state recommends women who are at risk of becoming pregnant or are pregnant should choose canned or pouched chunk light tuna packed in water to limit mercury exposure.

Children and childbearing age women can still safely eat as much king salmon, small halibut (under 40 pounds), sheefish and many other species as they want. But they should avoid eating large amounts of halibut that were 220 pounds or heavier when caught, plus lingcod and yelloweye rockfish, according to the Division of Public Health.

Men, adult women who cannot become pregnant and teenage boys “are encouraged to eat as much fish from Alaska waters as they would like,” health officials said.

Asked about state recommendations for safe amounts of sea mammals, such as bowhead whales that are an important food source and cultural touchstone on the North Slope, Hamade said that research is just beginning.

Contact Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com.