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State lab tests hundreds of fish for contaminants

Posted: Tuesday, July 09, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The king salmon was no monster, weighing less than 8 pounds when it was plucked out of the Kuskokwim River last week. But after it was sliced, diced and mashed into salmon pulp, after it was washed in acetone, hydrochloric acid and toluene, after a mere wisp of the former predator was run through an atomic absorption spectrometer, heated to 2,400 degrees centigrade and pierced by a beam of light, Ron Grimm could safely say it was clean.

At least for cadmium.

Mercury is another question. And it will take months to know whether the fish carried PCBs, furans and a range of other pollutants.

Grimm and his crew at the Department of Environmental Conservation's Palmer laboratory are trying to answer one of the most basic questions regarding Alaska seafood: Is it safe to eat?

So far the answer is yes, said the DEC's Bob Gerlach. But, he added, ''everybody's watching, from rural communities to commercial fishermen.''

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has long wanted Alaska to test its seafood for a long list of hazardous compounds and chemicals, Gerlach said, but the immensity of the state and its extensive coastline have made that effort too expensive to tackle. With the help of several grants, however, the DEC this summer embarked on the most extensive study to date. It will analyze all five species of Pacific salmon from every major drainage in the state, plus halibut and various groundfish, even freshwater species like sheefish and northern pike.

''We're sampling just about everything in the ocean,'' said Grimm, who manages the DEC's seafood testing at the Palmer lab.

Grimm and his crew will cut into 700 fish this summer to test for heavy metals like arsenic and methylmercury, the form of mercury that concerns health officials the most. They will also send about 70 salmon to labs in British Columbia to search for signs that industrial pollutants like PCBs and dioxins are collecting in Alaska seafood.

''We don't have a problem with a lot of these contaminants, but no one's done an extensive study like this,'' said Gerlach, who oversees the new seafood testing program. ''We want to have a central collection point for data on Alaska fish so we can answer the question 'Do we have a problem with these fish?' ''

Health officials have known for decades that persistent organic pollutants are accumulating in the Arctic. They arrive on air currents and dust storms, via ship wrecks and airplane crashes, in 55-gallon barrels and through the water. They can accumulate in the flesh of long-lived animals, which can introduce them to humans.

The European Union now wants assurances that the salmon it buys from Alaska commercial fishermen are free of dioxins, Gerlach said.

''If we don't do something that shows our fish are good, it's going to affect the markets of fishermen,'' he said.

The cost of testing the 700 fish in Palmer will be absorbed by the DEC, but the 70 salmon that undergo the full range of testing will cost $3,000 each.

To stretch its funding, DEC has gathered partners for the project, said department outreach coordinator Kristin Ryan. The Department of Fish and Game contributed $194,000 in federal funds, and its biologists are shipping salmon from 21 sites around Alaska. Federal port monitors are also sending fish for sampling, she said. In addition, the EPA chipped in $180,000.

Samples of the minced fish are going to universities in Fairbanks, Idaho and Washington, where other scientists have other questions to answer.

Eventually Gerlach hopes to gather results from this and other contaminant studies and post them in an easy-to-access format, such as an online map. He envisions someone clicking on a major water body like Bristol Bay and calling up the levels of mercury, arsenic or PCBs in specific fish.

The first numbers may not be ready for a year, however, because chemical analysis is slow work, Grimm said. His crew spends about six hours to prepare a single batch of salmon or sheefish for him to run through the lab's high-tech machinery -- mostly to assure the samples are not contaminated.



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