Local opelu are low-mercury and can be eaten anytime, per DOH.
Image: Lara deGuzman

Selenium, an essential mineral found in Hawaii’s wild ocean fish, is said to “nullify” the levels of mercury in seafood, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported in a splashy front-page story on Dec. 15, citing a 2007 study. The headline read, “Mercury toxicity from fish unlikely.” Problem: The claim is inaccurate and could place young children at risk.

Dr. Linda Rosen, a pediatrician and chief of Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention at the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH), warns that the study may be misleading. Rosen says that, although the findings sound promising, Hawaii consumers, especially women who are pregnant or planning to conceive, should still be aware of their fish consumption, especially with the New Year–a traditional time for fish bingeing–just around the corner.

According to DOH, even small amounts of mercury can cause neurological problems in fetuses, breastfed babies and young children. Larger doses can cause brain damage and learning disorders.

The selenium report, conducted by Dr. John Kaneko, program manager for the Hawaii Seafood Council and Dr. Nick Ralston of the Energy and Environmental Research Center in North Dakota, maintains that ocean fish in Hawaii have higher levels of selenium, and thus are safer to eat, than seafood from elsewhere.

“I think [the studies] are too preliminary,” Rosen says.

Dr. Barbara Brooks, state toxicologist for DOH, agrees. “Studies to date have shown no protective effect of selenium in animals exposed prenatally to mercury. It is premature at best to make health risk policy decisions on the selenium mercury ratios in Hawaii’s local fish,” Brooks told the Weekly.

Kaneko emailed the Weekly that he was not available to comment.

Fish should be considered part of a healthy diet for the general population, Rosen says. But for pregnant women, a joint advisory by the U.S. EPA and FDA recommends a limit of 12 ounces or an average of two seafood meals a week. Hawaii DOH has a local fish consumption risk advisory for pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children at [hawaii.gov]

If you’re feeling ono for New Year’s fish–and you’re also pregnant or trying to be–eat low-mercury fish such as opelo, or salmon or tako poke–and go easy on the ahi, Rosen says. “[Higher-mercury] ahi, ono or opah can be consumed every other week and you’ll still be safe from mercury toxicity,” she explains.

“It’s not that we don’t want women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and young children to eat fish, we just want them to be careful,” Rosen says.