If you've ever been to Spain you know that seafood is widely consumed there -- it's even in our baby food -- and with such a rich connection to the sea (the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean) it's easy to see why.
As a Spaniard, I'm proud of our seafood tradition. Unfortunately, as a mother, I'm worried. There's a downside to our seafood habit: studies have shown that the mercury level in our blood is 10 times that of the average level in the US and in other countries.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that builds up in fish that are high on the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish. People exposed to high levels of mercury in fish can experience health effects, such as delayed neurological development in children. When I found that out, I immediately curbed my family's consumption of high-mercury fish -- for my health and for my children's health. But many Spanish consumers, mothers included, are not aware of the health risks of consuming some types of seafood.
Thankfully, as a result of pressure from Oceana, the Spanish government recently issued a formal health warning to women of child-bearing age and to children regarding unsafe levels of mercury in swordfish, bluefin tuna, and two species of sharks often eaten in our country. The government advised pregnant women and children under three to stop eating swordfish and sharks entirely because of possible health risks (and recommended only moderate weekly consumption of these fish for everyone else).
This may seem like an obvious public health precaution, but in reality it marks a significant victory in a battle that lasted several years. Here's the back story: In 2003, Spain's Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) conducted a large research study that documented levels of mercury and other heavy metals in large fish such as various sharks, swordfish, and bluefin tuna.
The results were alarming: 62.5 percent of the 128 mako shark samples and 54.2 percent of the swordfish samples contained high, unpermitted levels of mercury. Despite this alarming evidence, the results were never released due to concerns about its possible impact on the fishing industry.
Oceana immediately took action, and after more than four years of legal pressure, Spain's National Court finally relented and ordered the government to release the full document to Oceana, at which point, the Spanish Ministry of Health finally issued the formal health warning.
Since Oceana's campaign to stop seafood contamination began, hundreds of grocery stores in the United States have started posting the mercury warnings. Let's hope that Spanish seafood purveyors follow suit so that Spanish consumers can protect themselves from mercury contamination.
María Eugenia Girón is a Spanish business leader and member of Oceana's Board of Directors.