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Tests show residents in dolphin-hunting village in 'The Cove' have elevated mercury levels

Dolphin meat is served in Taiji, Japan

TAIJI, Japan — Residents of the dolphin-hunting village depicted in Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove" have high mercury levels, likely because of their fondness for dolphin and whale meat, a government lab said Sunday.

The levels of mercury detected in Taiji residents were above the national average, but follow-up tests have found no ill effects, according to the National Institute for Minamata Disease. The tests were done on hair samples from 1,137 volunteers of the town's roughly 3,500 residents.

"The results suggest there is a connection between hair mercury levels and eating cetaceans," Director Koji Okamoto told reporters at a town hall.

Mercury accumulates up the food chain, so large predators such as dolphins, tuna and swordfish tend to have the highest levels. The latest studies published by the Japanese government show that meat from bottlenose dolphins had about 1,000 times the mercury content of that found in sardines.

Fetuses and small children are particularly vulnerable to mercury, which affects the development of the nervous system. The Health Ministry recommends that pregnant women eat at most 2.8 ounces (80 grams) of bottlenose dolphin per two months.

Environmentalists have long protested Taiji's dolphin slaughter and Japan's whaling activities and have adopted the mercury issue as part of their cause.

"If you're eating dolphin meat, you're eating poison, and if you're eating a lot of dolphin meat, you're eating a lot of poison," said Louie Psihoyos, director of "The Cove," which won an Academy Award earlier this year. He spoke to the Associated Press by phone from Los Angeles.

Taiji had been considering adding a mercury test to its standard set of health checks for several years. The town government last year contacted the institute, which agreed to perform and pay for mercury tests as part of its research, according to Yoshio Kaino, a Taiji official who oversaw the program.

Various tests were done from June 2009 through February. On Sunday, a town hall meeting was held to explain the results, and about 100 Taiji residents who attended were told that there was no need for most of them to change their diet, although future tests are necessary.

Individuals with the highest levels were advised to cut back on large fish and sea mammals. Although it can damage the nervous system permanently, mercury naturally fades from the body over time, halving about every 70 days. A person could flush most of it from their system by completely cutting it out for a year.

At lunch after the town hall meeting, council chief Katsutoshi Mihara rejoiced as he carefully dipped raw slices of a striped dolphin into soy sauce.

"This may seem nonchalant, but I have absolutely no concerns, and I want to be able keep my lifestyle," he said.

As served at "Moby Dick," a hotel run by the local government, the red and pink dolphin sashimi was chewy and faintly fishy, its mammalian consistency more like meat than fish.

Despite the high mercury levels found in the Taiji tests, institute officials said neurological tests on the 182 citizens who wanted them found no problems. Follow-up tests are planned by March 2011, with outside experts possibly invited, and a separate study is under way to track mercury levels in the local catch.

At a presentation for the media on Sunday afternoon, many reporters questioned how there could be no health effects despite such high mercury levels, with some challenging the competency of the lab.

Joanna Tempowski, a scientist who works on chemical safety at the World Health Organization in Switzerland, said the Minamata institute was a respected institution that was trusted to provide technical assistance. Without seeing the Taiji results, she said that some damage from mercury might not appear immediately.

"At some point in the future they might start to show health effects," she said.

Mercury poisoning is a sensitive topic in Japan, where a disorder now called Minamata Disease was linked to a chemical company that dumped tons of mercury compounds on the southern island of Kyushu.

The disease causes spasms, sensory loss and birth defects and can be fatal. The pollution continued for years after it was discovered, and Minamata disease became an international symbol of environmental damage and corporate corruption.

'Cove' director says film's anti-dolphin-slaughter message won't be silenced by opposition
In Taiji, Japan, fishermen in the Cove are still killing dolphins (guest post by Ric O'Barry)

-- Jay Alabaster, Associated Press

Photo: Dolphin sashimi, raw slices from the breast of a striped dolphin, is served during lunch at Moby Dick in Taiji, Japan, on Sunday. Credit: Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press

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Not just harmful to our bodies, depleting our ocean of these magnificent creature hurts the natural ecology and biodiversity of our sacred ocean. Please join in taking action in supporting & encouraging anti whaling nations in phasing out whaling. Banning all forms of whale hunting is true conservation!

Few days left to make our voices heard. Delegates from around the world will be joining to determine the future of the whales. A number of pro whaling nations are seeking to lift the ban and hunt openly, help save the whales !!!

I can't believe that the author of this article ate dolphin sashimi. This isn't only about the immediate effects on humans, its about the long term affects of this mass species slaughter on the earth. USE YOUR BRAIN.

I think that whale and dolphin commercial fishing is absurd to think about. They are the most peaceful mammals on this planet. To slaughter these animals and having them as food is just wrong. Vote No on Commercial Whaling!!!!

When there are no more dolphins after COREXIT 9500 has reached its' hilt of destruction,...the people that contributed to the annihilation by killing them so that they could brag and boister about how their' bellies were full and satisfied based on their' self-righteous gratification,.. these,... these are the ones that are incapable of true love of nature,... they are superflous humans that have inner contempt for themselves and express outwardly by assuming that they are admired for eating these creatures,... pure evil with no love.


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