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Oct 5, 2010

Dangerously high mercury levels in bay snook fish

The saying goes “When fish come from riva battam an tell yoh halligetter gat bellyache you mus believe ah”.  But are residents in the west taking heed? After reviewing data over the last two years, the Ministry of Health and the Belize Electric Company, BECOL, have concluded that Bay Snook fish found in the Macal River contains mercury level so high that it can be unsafe for human consumption.  But News Five’s Marion Ali found out today that many are still feasting on fish.

Marion Ali, Reporting

The Government of Belize has issued an alert to persons who consume Bay Snook fish, particularly from the Macal River in the Cayo District.  This follows a recent test which concludes that the mercury level particularly in Bay Snook fish in that river is three times the acceptable level.  But, according to Senior Fisheries Officer, George Myvett, while people should avoid the Bay Snook, mercury levels in other types of river fish in the area are also high.

George Myvett, Senior Fisheries Officer

george myvett

“It’s really not only Bay Snook. There are some other species in which the level of mercury, which is measured in parts per million for the most part is above what is being considered safe and acceptable for human health. One gram in every two and a quarter pound is one part per million. It’s a minute quantity and in fact I should say that Mercury is considered a heavy metal and is one of perhaps the most toxic heavy metals that we would associate with risk to human health.”

Most susceptible to mercury-poisoning from tainted fish are pregnant women, women of child-bearing age, children, and anyone with a weak immune system is compromised by illness.  Medical Chief of Staff at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, Dr Bernard Bulwer says that the symptoms are often tied to other health issues and are so wide-ranging that they would not immediately be linked to mercury-poisoning.

dr. bernard bulwer

Dr. Bernard Bulwer, Medical Chief of Staff, KHMH

“Because it can damage nerves, anything ranging from headaches, memory changes or damage to nerves in general. You can get what they call paresthesia, abnormal sensation. Some people can get anything ranging from numbness, tingling, burning headache, unusual type of symptoms. The trouble with these is that these same complaints can be due to many other things and people may not suspect it. No one routinely checks mercury inside the urine or inside the blood. So a lot of these things sadly are only found out after they have exhausted looking for many other things. And sometimes because they are not suspecting these things, you actually ignore them.”

There has never been a reported death in Belize caused by fish tainted with excessive mercury content.  And perhaps this was the reason why the persons we spoke with in the Belize River Valley are not worried about the fish that flows downstream from the Macal River, including Grace Augustine, who has G and I Kitchen on the Northern Highway near Ladyville.

Grace Augustine, Sells Cooked River Fish

grace augustine

“If ih noh deh pan di menu, deh noh ask for it, unless we have it on the menu den dehn buy it.”

Marion Ali

“People like river fish?”

Grace Augustine

“You have some weh like it and you have some weh noh like it. I usually have wah man weh come and sell us, but ih noh come so we noh bother with it.”

Marion Ali

“You find anything different from the river fish than the other fish?”

Grace Augustine

“The river fish nice. Dah wah nice fish, ih fleshy. So far I still deh yah, [laughs].”

isaac cabb

Isaac Cabb, Eats River Fish

“I noh ketch no snook dwon yah so so I noh think I really have to worry about that because no snook deh di side yah. Ih mostly up soh di bay snook and thing dehn deh.”

Norval Flowers, Eats River Fish

norval flowers

“The mercury weh deh di claim, I noh really sure much about it, but ih noh di affect we dis side yah.”

Marion Ali

“How you know that ih noh the affect you?”

Norval Flowers

“I just eat fish yesterday, river fish too. I eat wah big tilapia and I di get fat, I noh di get no. I noh have no problem, I noh think mercury di damage fi we thing this side yah.”

reuben rhaburn

Reuben Rhaburn, Eats River Fish

“We still eat the fish. But then if they test it close to we then we wahn have to stop eat the fish. But I hear they mi di talk about it but more up river like San Ignacio side, you know.”

Deodato Lanza, Eats River Fish

deodato lanza

“I di eat from I born and I seventy-seven years old and nothing happen to me yet. I know dehn used to tell yoh bout in the states that the chemicals deh use go into the sea and ih hambug the fishes deh and yoh noh eat it. But I noh hear nobody dead from it yet.”

winston flowers

Winston Flowers, Eats River Fish

“From I small I di eat river fish.”

Marion Ali

“You still di eat it?”

Winston Flowers

“Still di eat ahn up to now only because the water high now and I can’t catch ahn. And I noh wah stop neither because ih got in lot of vitamin.”

Marion Ali

“And they seh the fish got in mercury to weh noh good fi yoh body.”

Winston Flowers

“Noh dah this side yah. Because we eat anyone—bay snook, tuba, crana, butter…noh talk bout barka, because barka dah di one weh got all the iron.”

And while some people like river fish for their levels of iron and nutrients, the mystery of what caused the mercury level in the fish to multiply has not been determined.  And if your theory is the presence of the dams, Myvett says that has not been proven.

George Myvett

“We looked at some data that goes back prior to the flooding of the reservoir associated with the dam. And actually the data that we see, the level of the mercury were actually in excess of World health standard before the dam was built.”

Marion Ali

“So what could be the cause of it now then?”

George Myvett

“I wouldn’t want to speculate what the causes would be because some of it obviously come from natural seepages—mercury would come from burning, industrial processes. So I wouldn’t want to speculate where mercury is coming from.”

Doctor Bulwer says that if mercury-poisoning goes undetected, a person could die within weeks of eating the tainted fish.  Marion Ali for News Five.

The Government release has recommended other sources of omega acids to substitute for fish.  These include chicken, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds or pepitos, wangla or sesame seeds, cashew nuts, spinach, avocados, and canola, corn or  olive oil and soybean.


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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4 Responses for “Dangerously high mercury levels in bay snook fish”

  1. Earl Grey says:

    STOP POISONING THE RIVERS……….. NO MORE DAMS.

    BUILD WIND FARMS AND HARVEST SOLAR ENERGY.

    NO MORE DAMS…………….NO MORE DAMS…………………..NO MORE DAMS…………………

  2. Lightbulb says:

    THE CHALILLO DAM — that’s a no brainer.

    So much for trying to warn all you dummies.

  3. belizeanpride says:

    the difference from a river fish is it’s flavour which the sea fish done’t havemuch, but actually both are nice when your really hungry. concerning the mercury the public need to be more aware of the consequences of it. So lets eat fish but be aware of which ones are from the macal river than the other rivers not comtaminated. It makes me hungry see the fish in the frying pan.

  4. math FAIL says:

    Mr. Myvett,
    1 gram every 2 1/4 pouds is 1 part per thousand.
    there are 1000 grams in 2 1/4 pounds (1 kilo)
    1 part per million is one thousandth of 1 gram in 1 kilo, or 1 milligram.
    not that anybody cares, not that anybody would understand…

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