Something Fishy about Fish

\"\"Not long ago, fish was considered a health food. Yet in 2004, we are getting some mighty confusing advice. We are told by an expert on Canadian fish Dr. J. Sheeshka that people who are concerned about organochlorines can simply cut off and drain away as much fat as possible when cooking fish. She says however, “Consumers who are worried about the contaminant load can greatly reduce their risks by trimming the fat off their fish. Sixty to 90 percent of organochlorines can be removed this way.” But I thought that omega-3 fatty acids in the fat were the big selling point about fish, especially salmon, from a health standpoint. So now, are we supposed to dump that contaminated fat into the garbage? Sheeska goes on to add “Not everyone who eats fish is doing it for the health benefits, but everyone is entitled to know how they can reduce their health risks. This is one option; switching to safer species (than salmon) is another option.” (1)

Now what other species might that be? How about going out fishing, sitting in the sunlight by a babbling brook and having a pleasant Canadian recreational experience? Ontario’s monitoring program for instance tests levels of toxic substances in between 4,000 and 6,000 fish per year from its lakes and rivers. Its website advises women who are pregnant or planning to be pregnant, and children under 15 to eat only those fish that have been given the “clear fish” symbol. We get the message: on your way back from the fishing trip, it might be best to stop by the chemical testing lab with your catch, before serving up your trophy to the family. (2) (3) (4)

Because of their seafood-centred diets, Canadian Inuit women have six times the level of PCBs in their breast milk, compared with women in urban centres. Nunavik women are greatly concerned about breast-feeding their infants, since the PCBs in their own bodies are passed along to their breast-fed infants.(5) (6) Parents worry about developmental delays and behavioural problems that tend to show up in children with high intakes of these substances.

How about here in beautiful BC? Isn’t there some sort of barrier in the oceans that protects our salmon from all the chemicals that have been dumped for years? According to the BC Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, our disposal practices for manure, sewage, and pulp and paper mill effluent are affecting various species that live in our waters: crabs with dioxin/furan and ocean shellfish and fish in rivers with animal and human waste. (7) We’ve discovered that our BC pulp mills’ practice of burning bark mulch that was soaked in seawater has led to the release of plenty of dioxins (polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins) and furans. After we’ve chopped down the trees, getting rid of “unutilized wood residue” seems to be a big problem. These toxic emissions come from the burning of waste wood even when it isn’t soaked in seawater, if the combustion temperature isn’t sufficiently high and uniform. (8) So more dioxins go into the watery environment where fish and shellfish live (or try to).

Instead of wild fish, should we resort to farmed salmon, despite the lower percentage of their fat that is beneficial omega-3 fatty acids? David Suzuki has given us his answer on that, and it adds up to a big No. Scientists testing approximately two tons of farmed and wild salmon found the farmed salmon to be even more highly contaminated. In fact, if we go by US Environmental Protection Agency consumption guidelines, we would be advised not to eat more than one meal per month of BC farmed fish (unless you’re a child or pregnant, in which case, eat much less, perhaps just a nibble. (9)

At a North American national risk communication conference for the fishing industry, environmental and health representatives, scientists and tribal groups, a major theme was how to communicate the message that fish are chemically contaminated. Hot topics at the conference were the following chemicals of concern: mercury, brominated flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers or BDEs), dioxins and coplanar PCBs, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (10) Pregnant or not, those don’t sound like anything I want on my menu.

How about just sitting in the sunlight by a babbling brook, having a nice recreational experience, without feeling the need to kill wildlife at the same time, and munching on a tuna-like carrot and tahini sandwich, and a enjoying a warming Thermos of green sea soup.

Green Sea Soup

This simple, flavourful soup is high in protein, and gives you staying power between meals; it is an excellent choice for weight management. It is cooked in an hour, though longer cooking allows the flavour to develop. It freezes well, so you may want to make a double batch and freeze portions for days when you don\’t feel like cooking. The optional sea vegetables are high in calcium and other minerals; they bring a whiff of the ocean to this hearty soup.

1 1/2 cups dry split peas

5 cups water

1 to 2 bay leaves

1 tsp salt

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

1 leek, sliced or 1 cup onion

1 tsp each marjoram, basil and cumin

2 tbsp dry wakame seaweed (optional)

Place all ingredients in a saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 3 to 4 hours to develop flavour.

Makes 6 cups.

Carrot and Tahini Sandwich Filling

This filling has a tuna-like texture. For the best effect, be sure to grate the carrots finely. Tahini is nutritious and tasty sesame seed butter. Flavours can vary, so you may want to try a few brands. By far the tastiest brand that I’ve found is Country Fresh organic sesame butter, available at Capers.

1 medium carrot, finely grated

2 tbsp sesame tahini

1 tsp Nayonnaise or soy mayonnaise

1 tbsp diced celery

1 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp kelp powder

1 tbsp diced onion (optional)

1 tsp nutritional yeast (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Use as a filling for one sandwich, or as a spread.

Makes 1/2 cup.

(1) Communication to members of Dietitians of Canada from J Sheeshka, Guelph Ontario.

(2) The 2003 – 2004 Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/envision/guide/index.htm

(3) Ontario Ministry of the Environment sport fish contaminant monitoring program. http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/cons/4368b.pdf

(4) Dietary Intakes and Plasma Organochlorine Contaminant Levels Among Great Lakes Fish Eaters by DC Cole, J Sheeshka, EJ Murkin, J Kearney, F Scott, LA Ferron, J-P Weber. Archives of Environmental Health, Sept-Oct 2002. Online at http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m0907/5_57/98753156/p1/article.jhtml

(5) The Arctic, Where Mother\’s Milk Is Toxic http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1295/12_64/67921051/p1/article.jhtml


(6) P Ayotte, G Muckle, J Jacobson, S Jacobson, and É Dewailly. Assessment of Pre- and Postnatal Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls: Lessons from the Inuit Cohort Study. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2003/6054/6054.pdf

(7) Government of British Columbia, Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. Water Quality,

Understanding Non-Point Source Pollution in BC.


(8) AMEC Forest Industry Consulting. Summary Report: Multi-pollutant Emission Reduction Analysis Foundation (MERAF) for the Lumber and Allied Wood Products Sector Prepared for: Environment Canada

and The Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment (CCME). September 30, 2002

(9) The Honourable Stuart M. Leggatt. Clear Choices, Clean Waters Report and Recommendations

The Leggatt Inquiry Into Salmon Farming In British Columbia.


(10) US Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Society for Risk Analysis. National Risk Communication Conference http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/forum/sectioned_pdfs/part2slides1a.pdf 

Vesanto Melina is a registered dietitian, speaker, consultant and workshop leader at Hollyhock this coming June 4 to 7. She is co-author of numerous books including the classic bestseller Becoming Vegetarian. Next month this column will focus on how to get optimal amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, including the long chain omega-3s. Vesanto is based in Langley; 604 882-6782. www.camd58.sg-host.com


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