Post-Fukushima, Japan's irradiated fish worry B.C. experts

Are fish from the Pacific Ocean and Japanese coastal and inland waters safe to eat 16 months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster?


Are you worried about negative health impacts in North America from the Fukushima nuclear disaster?

Yes 87%
629 votes
No 9%
65 votes
Not sure 4%
26 votes

Governments and many scientists say they are. But the largest collection of data on radiation in Japanese fish tells a very different story.

In June, 56 percent of Japanese fish catches tested by the Japanese government were contaminated with cesium-137 and -134. (Both are human-made radioactive isotopes—produced through nuclear fission—of the element cesium.)

And 9.3 percent of the catches exceeded Japan’s official ceiling for cesium, which is 100 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg). (A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity equal to one nuclear disintegration per second.)

Radiation levels remain especially high in many species that Japan has exported to Canada in recent years, such as cod, sole, halibut, landlocked kokanee, carp, trout, and eel.

Of these species, cod, sole, and halibut, which are oceanic species, could also be fished by other nations that export their Pacific Ocean catch to Canada.

The revelations come from the Japanese Fisheries Agency’s radiation tests on almost 14,000 commercial fish catches in both international Pacific and Japanese waters since March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The wrecked plant spewed enormous amounts of radiation into the Pacific, where cesium levels near the Fukushima coast shot up to an astonishing 45 million times the pre-accident levels.

Japan’s Fisheries Agency data is easily the most comprehensive on Fukushima’s radioactive impacts on the Pacific Ocean, home to the world’s biggest fishery and a major food source for more than a billion people.

The numbers show that far from dissipating with time, as government officials and scientists in Canada and elsewhere claimed they would, levels of radiation from Fukushima have stayed stubbornly high in fish. In June 2012, the average contaminated fish catch had 65 becquerels of cesium per kilo. That’s much higher than the average of five Bq/kg found in the days after the accident back in March 2011, before cesium from Fukushima had spread widely through the region’s food chain.

In some species, radiation levels are actually higher this year than last.

The highest cesium level in all of the catches came in March—a year after the accident—when a landlocked masu salmon caught in a Japanese river was found to have a whopping 18,700 becquerels of cesium per kilogram—or 187 times Japan’s ceiling.

Burnaby MD Tim Takaro says he now avoids eating fish from the vicinity of Japan. “I would find another source for fish if I thought it was from that area,” said Takaro, an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s faculty of health sciences.

“There are way too many questions and not enough answers to say everything is fine,” Takaro said in a phone interview. “There is a need for monitoring. There isn’t any question in my mind about that.”

Takaro is a member of the Canadian antinuclear group Physicians for Global Survival, which joined five other Canadian and international medical and environmental groups last week to issue a statement calling on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Ottawa, and U.S. authorities to monitor Pacific migratory fish and seafood imports from Japan and other nations that ply the Pacific with their fishing fleets.

“Doing this kind of monitoring is a fundamental responsibility of governments,” said Vancouver MD Erica Frank, who spearheaded the statement.

“People shouldn’t have to worry about radiation levels in the food they eat.”

Frank—a Canada Research Chair in UBC’s faculty of medicine and a past president of the Nobel Prize–winning U.S. group Physicians for Social Responsibility, another signatory of the statement—said she also avoids eating fish from Japan.

“I think it’s important to ask purveyors of Pacific food where it comes from,” she said.

Nicholas Fisher is one of the few U.S. scientists studying Fukushima’s impacts on migratory fish in the Pacific.

Fisher said he was surprised when told about the high cesium levels in the Japanese fisheries data. It makes him leery of eating fish from Japanese waters, he said.

“Those are high numbers. It would give me pause if I were eating fish in Japan.…Imported fish are also a concern,” said Fisher, a marine-sciences professor at New York’s Stony Brook University. Fisher added in a phone interview that the persistently high cesium numbers may be a sign that the Fukushima plant is still leaking radiation into the ocean.

Trying to limit your radiation exposure from fish? Governments haven’t given much information on which species were hardest hit, but the Japanese data gives good clues.

Yet it has gotten virtually no notice from journalists or scientists in North America.

The data shows the contamination has remained high in both saltwater species and freshwater fish found in Japanese lakes and rivers. Especially high cesium levels have been found in recent months in these saltwater species: halibut (a catch in May 2012 had 570 Bq/kg), sole (a catch in January had 180 Bq/kg), and cod (a catch in February had 260 Bq/kg).

All of these catches exceed Japan’s 100 Bq/kg ceiling for cesium in food, but none would have surpassed Canada’s much higher ceiling, which is 1,000 Bq/kg. Freshwater species such as trout, carp, and (landlocked) masu and kokanee salmon have also recently shown very high cesium levels, as have eels, which live in both fresh and salt water. (See table for details.) Also troubling: except for sole and cod, all of these species had their highest cesium readings in 2012, not 2011.

A big question here is the fate of the salmon. Some migratory B.C. salmon stray into Japanese waters or could traverse a vast mass of radioactive water—now slowly making its way eastward across the Pacific—which is expected to reach the North American west coast by 2017, extending from Vancouver Island southward to Baja California (according to a July 9 report in Environmental Research Letters).

The Japanese data tells us a little about how some salmon species were affected.

Half of the 10 coho salmon tested since the Fukushima disaster were contaminated with cesium. One coho caught in Japanese coastal waters last October had 114 Bq/kg of cesium, surpassing Japan’s ceiling. Chum salmon, on the other hand, showed much less contamination than coho, with only nine of 257 chum catches since the accident testing positive for cesium. The highest amount detected was eight Bq/kg in a catch last November.

Among the hardest-hit fish species are landlocked salmon. Every one of the 42 kokanee (a landlocked sockeye salmon) tested since March 2011 had at least some cesium contamination. Japan exported $430,000 of kokanee to Canada in the first four months of 2012, according to Statistics Canada figures.

A kokanee with 200 Bq/kg was caught in April of this year, according to the Japanese data. In both May and June, kokanee with 180 Bq/kg were caught.

But the record for most cesium in all the fish catches was handily set by the landlocked masu salmon (native to the Western Pacific) that registered 18,700 Bq/kg in March.

Statistics Canada data shows Japan exported $37,000 worth of “Pacific, Atlantic, and Danube salmon” to Canada in the first four months of 2012.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada spokesperson James Watson said by phone from Ottawa that his department doesn’t know if Canada has imported masu salmon from Japan.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in a July 17, 2012, statement that Canada has imported one shipment of masu salmon, in October 2011, since Fukushima. The statement says the product was processed in the U.S., the shipment’s country of origin was not disclosed by the importer, and the product was not tested for radiation. (Masu salmon is also found in other parts of East Asia.)

CFIA spokesperson Lisa Gauthier refused to make someone available to answer questions on fish monitoring.

Japanese finance ministry trade data, however, shows Japan exported 120 kilograms of masu salmon to Canada in April 2011, directly after the nuclear accident.

The test data does have some better news for other species. Tuna, octopus, and anchovies (as well as seaweed) have all seen declining cesium levels since last winter after much higher contamination in the six to nine months after the accident. Even so, however, 69 percent of anchovies still had some cesium contamination in June (the highest level was 5.5 Bq/kg), and so did 32 percent of tuna (the highest reading was 1.9 Bq/kg).

Cesium levels in tuna could still go up as they become more exposed to radioactive water near Japan, said Stony Brook University’s Fisher.

Fisher cowrote a study in May 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reported that of 15 Pacific bluefin tuna caught off the California coast, all had radioactive cesium from Fukushima. The tuna had an average of 10.3 Bq/kg when they were caught last August.

The amounts are below government ceilings, but government regulators and scientists generally agree that no amount of radiation is safe.

For example, Canada’s ceiling for radiation is set at a level that allows 5,000 to 8,000 cancers per million people over a 70-year lifetime of exposure, according to Health Canada’s models and those of a landmark 2006 U.S. National Academy of Sciences report on cancer risk from radiation. (About half of the cancers would be fatal.)

Health Canada’s ceilings for chemical carcinogens are generally set at levels that cause a maximum of one to 10 lifetime cancers per million people.

Authorities in Canada dismiss the calls for monitoring.

“Not involved, not involved,” said Tom Kosatsky, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s acting medical director of environmental health services, when asked about monitoring of radiation in Pacific fish.

“It’s a federal responsibility,” he said in a phone interview.

In the past, the CFIA has said it has no plans to monitor Pacific fish or imports from Japan and other countries whose fishing fleets plumb the Pacific.

The agency briefly monitored Japanese food imports from the vicinity of Fukushima after the accident, but ceased the tests in June 2011. It also did radiation tests on a dozen fish caught in B.C. coastal waters last August and another 20 in February 2012, finding no cesium, according to the CFIA website.

The B.C. Seafood Alliance’s Christina Burridge said in a phone interview last January that she was surprised the CFIA wasn’t doing more tests.

She said the agency last year promised her group, an umbrella of Pacific seafood-harvesting associations, that it would test Pacific salmon and tuna returning to B.C. waters in 2012 and 2013 because those fish may have migrated close to Japan.

Burridge couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.

Meanwhile, Japan’s seafood exports to Canada seem to be growing despite Fukushima and reports that the accident kneecapped the Japanese fishing industry.

Japan exported $6.9 million of fish and crustaceans to Canada in the first four months of 2012, according to Statistics Canada, which would work out to $20.7 million per year if averaged. That would be up from $16.3 million in 2011, which itself was higher than the 2010 total of $15.4 million.

Other nations are growing more leery of Japanese seafood. In June, South Korea temporarily banned the import of 35 Japanese seafood products—such as flatfish, clams, and sea urchins—due to radiation concerns, adding to a list of 29 other Japanese seafoods that the country had banned earlier.

It all leaves Vancouver doctor Frank bewildered by the government response here.

“It struck me as such a poor public-health decision not to monitor. This requires urgent action, but it just doesn’t seem to register on anyone’s radar,” she said.

Frank is now writing a book about the struggle to get authorities to monitor fish after Fukushima. She said she thinks of it as a murder mystery. “There are no bodies, but as a specialist in preventive medicine, I worry about increased mortality from the fish,” she said.


Fish species
Masu salmon landlocked
(aka sockeye) landlocked
All fish
Average cesium
in contaminated fish
in June (Bq/kg)
% of catches with
cesium in June
% of catches over
the Japanese
ceiling in June
Highest cesium level found in 2012, in
Bq/kg (month found)
18,700 (Mar)
18,700 (Mar)

Source: Japan’s Fisheries Agency. Data is for the period up to June 20, 2012.

Comments (48) Add New Comment
jonny .

i dont think i will be eating fish anymore

any cesium is too much
it stays in your body forever and builds up until its at a level that gives you cancer
Rating: -6
Japan banned Canadian beef, why is it so hard to ban their garbage or are there larger considerations at stake?
Rating: +14
There go the Alaskan Salmon and Crab industries. So long, and thanks for all the fish, indeed.

Hello, Nova Scotia and Scottish Salmon.
Rating: +4
C Sykes
Thanks for this article and very important info getting out to the public. I stopped eating any pacific ocean products, fish, kelp a year ago and will never again eat them. It is very sad, but my survival instinct is intact and it says, better be safe than sorry. Once again, I commend the Straight for publishing this and I hope you will continue to publish much needed stories about Fukushima. it is far worse than we are being told by the gov and other media who seem to be in the pockets of the nuke industry. Thanks again.
Rating: -301
just one point I'd like to make about this article - you wrote: "The wrecked plant spewed enormous amounts of radiation into the Pacific, where cesium levels near the Fukushima coast shot up to an astonishing 45 million times the pre-accident levels" - there are three plants that went into meltdown soon after, there are six on site.

The spewing is ongoing, not a one-time event. Check these headlines for a better idea as to what's happening:

At EneNews
1."Tepco completes covering seafloor with layers of cement mix — More coating used at Reactors 5 & 6 than for Reactors 1, 2, 3 & 4 combined (PHOTOS & VIDEOS)"
2. "NHK admits “the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi is still ongoing” (VIDEO)"
3. "Analyst on Fukushima Reactors: What’s happening with the corium? Where is this"
4. "NHK: Gov’t experts suggest suppression chamber collapsed at Reactor No. 2 on March 14 — Tepco’s analysis “probably does not reflect what actually happened”
Rating: +3
All the sushi nori comes from the coastal waters of Japan were thousands of tons of radioactive sea water has been dumped.

Sure wish our government did their job and actually tested for radiation regularly (considering we pay them to make sure our food is safe).

Anyone out there have a Geiger counter? Order some sushi rolls for take out somewhere, test the radiation levels and post results online please.
Rating: +10
Big Brother
Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Move along.
Rating: +9
Ian MacDougall
Why does the story not say until the very end that none of these readings are anywhere near what the Canadian government has always considered acceptable minimum levels? And why is the level higher this year than last? Does Japan have a secret underwater reactor somewhere that has been in continuous meltdown for nearly a year and a half?
Rating: 0
Make sure you all text this to everybody you know, while walking or driving through a red light... See what kills you faster. Anyhow, cheaper sushi on the way, excellent!
Rating: -9
john hansen
I don't understand the fear.
The table shows the fish have less than one half the radiation present in normal safe food.

For comparison here are the numbers for natural foods we eat every day:

Carrots: 126 Bq/kg from potassium-40; half life 1.3 billion years, decay energy 1.3 MeV
Banana: 130 Bq/kg from potassium-40
Brazil nuts: 207 Bq/kg from potassium-40, plus 37-259 Bq/kg from radium-226; half-life 1,620 years, decay energy 4.9 MeV
US tobacco: 19.1 Bq/kg from polonium-210; half-life 138 days, decay energy 5.3 MeV

Dr Frank should worry more about increased mortality from carrots.
With budgets stretched thin in health care I don't want funds diverted from serious issues to be spent monitoring things that pose no risk.
Rating: -17
Martin Dunphy
john hansen (or should I say Seth?):

Radioactive cesium and iodine are not the same as naturally occurring potassium. You can't begin to compare them.
The banana comparison is always trotted out by nuclear apologists who hope to confuse people who, naturally, express concerns about such a serious subject, one that is very confusing to those who are not scientifically or technically inclined.
You do a disservice to everyone with such facile comparisons, and without making a distinction between (relatively) short and long half-lives and natural and human-made radioactive elements.

As for your concern about health budgets: the cost is amazingly cheap for the benefit derived, even if it is only to put concerns to rest.

Rating: +18
@ ian
Cesium bio-accumulates and will builld up more and more in fish and people over time. You haven't seen anything, yet. It is so bad, the Canadian government would rather not know.
Rating: -8
Does this article really surprise anyone? I think it only takes common sense to put the fact that the plant is right beside the ocean and that it's on the verge of complete meltdown... But of course, Harper is too busy attacking aboriginals, canadian charities who receive foreign funding and local residents who are now considered radicals if they are against the pipeline he's trying to push through on our coast...if they don't care about the risk of an oil spill that could kill all the fish we have, why would they care about something so "distant" from them...they fail to realize that everything is interconnected.
Rating: +7
john hansen
Martin Dunphy

Could you clarify:

How is radioactive caesium not the same as naturally occurring potassium?
Why can I not begin to compare them?
According to Wikipedia "the biological behavior of caesium is similar to that of potassium"

Why are you bringing up Iodine in the context of this story? It has a half life of only 8 days so after 1 and a half years it would have all decayed away.

Why is giving people a familiar context like bananas or carrots confusing? The numbers are hard for people to put into context and are often used to scare people, so I find a comparison (even if not perfect) helps put things in perspective.

How are my comparisons facile?
The only distinction between "man-made" and "natural" radioactive elements is the "naturalistic fallacy" that nature is good and man is bad. There is no difference in the type of radiation released or the health effects if any.

I question your assertion that monitoring would put people's concerns to rest. People could also come to the conclusion that if the government is monitoring it, then maybe it is a large enough danger that I should be concerned.

I should also point out that the reason the scientists can even distinguish between the insignificant amounts of Cs in these fish is because it does not occur in nature and thus has a unique signature. This allows them to filter out the overwhelming natural background radiation present.

I look forward to your answers.
Rating: -14
@ John Hansen

"...I look forward to your answers."

I'm afraid you already answered your own question, Dr. Faustus...

" does not occur in nature..."
Rating: +15
Dan Madigan
There's more research being done in the Pacific:

Focusing on animals that migrate across the entire Pacific Ocean, and show up in places like Hawaii, Alaska, and the west coast of the U.S.
Rating: -12
People Power
Media here don't cover it much, but Japanese public is rallying against nuclear power. They want alternatives, of which there are many. 170,000 people protested in Tokyo on Monday. Also, a government panel blamed the Fukushima nuke disaster on a corrupt regulatory system.
Also, just announced yesterday, TEPCO is boosting electricity rates in Sept to pay for the disaster. The people pay. The companies play.
Rating: +9

I-131 does not exist in nature, and it is the only radioactive substance that accumulates in people's thyroid and causes thyroid cancer
cigarette-smoking causes cancers partly because of radioactive polonium.
the amount of beta-emitting potassium is kept in balance in our body, whereas many man-made radioactive isotopes are alpha-emitting (much more damaging when ingested or inhaled) and accumulate in our body
naturally occuring radioactive substances like radon pose risks to our health, why should we create more dangers
Rating: 0
Martin Dunphy
"john hansen":

Your simplistic comparisons are the equivalent of lies, and the topic is too serious to allow for trivial back-and-forths with potentially life-altering consequences hanging in the balance.

I will only say this:

You make no distinction between bioaccumulative radioactive substances and those that appear to be homeostatically controlled by the human body.

You toss around phrases such as "after 1 and a half years it would have all decayed away" without making the distinction between different kinds of radioactive isotopes, the type of radiation emitted, and what parts of the body are affected.
Fat lot of good it does someone to have radioactive substances "all decayed away" from their bones and hair when they have already decayed away themselves: i.e., died.

All experts agree that there is NO safe level of radiation exposure, of any kind, be they cosmic rays during air travel, X-rays, or radioactive fish.

The "banana equivalent dose" has been thoroughly discreditied as an unrealistic and poor isotope model. Since you can only cite Wikipedia as your scientific basis, I will make the leap of logic that you can also utilize Google. I suggest you use it.

To knowingly try to lull folks into a false sense of security about radiation hazards because you know many people don't understand the ins and outs of the science is about the most contemptible thing I can think of short of actual physical violence.

It makes one wonder what your name really is and who you represent.
Although it's not too hard to guess.

Please peddle your propagandistic codswallop on a site where it is welcomed.

There is a difference between engaging in an exchange of opinions and trying to further potentially harmful, simplistic myths about scientific facts that are very well understood and NOT subject to interpretation.

Again, there is NO safe level of exposure to radiation.
And that's not comparing apples to oranges.

Rating: +14
The government should arrange for big pharma to forcibly provide us with radiation vaccines made out genetically modified equestrian herpes. We can pay for it by stealing the pensions of impoverished seniors.
Rating: -5


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