Research Collaboration Focuses on Mercury in Seafood

Written by on December 5, 2012 in Marine Life, Physical Oceanography
Swordfish and tuna account for more than half of the mercury intake from seafood in the US.

Swordfish and tuna account for more than half of the mercury intake from seafood in the US. Photo credit: NOAA/NMFS.

A series of new reports shows that mercury released into the air and then deposited into the oceans contaminates our seafood.

This might seem like something we already know, as Dr. Celia Chen, Research Professor of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth College explains that “most people’s mercury exposure is through the consumption of marine fish.” But this is the first large-scale collaboration focused on how mercury moves through the atmosphere, to the ocean, and through the food chain.


The report was published by the Dartmouth-led Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC) and was based on nine scientific papers published in a special issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

C-MERC’s research involved two years of work by approximately 70 mercury and marine scientists from many different disciplines. It provides a thorough explanation of the pathway that mercury follows, all the way from the source to the fish to the consumers.


They found that mercury from the atmosphere accounts for about 52 percent of the mercury found in several large gulfs, and about 90 percent in the open ocean.

Elsie M. Sunderland, Assistant Professor of Aquatic Science at Harvard University, said that large tuna and swordfish “account for more than half of the mercury intake from seafood for the overall U.S. population.”


The good news is that if the input mercury to the atmosphere decreases, “mercury levels in ocean fish will decline and decrease the need for warnings to limit consumption of this globally important food source,” said Chen.

Model estimates from the report demonstrate that in the North Atlantic Ocean, “a 20% cut in the amount of mercury deposited to the ocean from the atmosphere would lead to about a 16% decline in mercury levels in fish,” explained Dr. Robert Mason, Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut.


“C-MERC’s synthesis of research identifies the most important drivers of mercury pollution to different oceans and coastal waters, and can help policymakers understand the links between environmental processes, methylmercury levels in marine ecosystems, human exposure, and the human health effects—all of which are critical to the discussion of how local, regional and global mercury pollution affects the world’s supply of seafood,” said Chen.

To learn more:

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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