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Knocking on Heaven's Shore: Bluefin Tuna Carrying Safe Fukushima Nuclear Radiation

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So the momometer tells us of another huge news story: bluefin tuna have carried radiation leaked from Japan's tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant across the ocean to California, where fishermen are catching them. (The momometer, a Geiger-counter of news magnitude, is my 86-year old-mother, Rose. No computer. When she phones me to tell me she's heard a news story, it means it's huge. And this one is.)

The significance: while Californians wait for currents to bring the floating debris of tsunami-devastated towns knocking on their heavenly shores, migratory animals such as tunas, albatrosses, sea turtles, and sharks are rocketing Fukushima nuclear plant radiation across the ocean. We know the whole world is connected, but we didn't quite think about how some of the connectors travel awfully far awfully fast. Long before tsunami debris arrives on Golden State sands, some California sport fishermen are catching radiation packages.

And so you ask, "Are the fish okay to eat?" Well, yes, because the amount of radiation -- while elevated and definitely from Fukushima -- is still miniscule, well below levels that give experts safety concerns (and I mean experts, not just government agencies). Another answer is, "Well, no," because they carry enough mercury to make you sick; that's a different issue. The mercury comes not from nuclear plants but from coal. And if you don't know where your bluefin originates, remember that Atlantic bluefin -- of no concern regarding radiation -- share the mercury problem plus are deeply depleted by overfishing. So another answer is, "It depends on what you mean by okay."

If you mean just the radiation, then yes, they're okay to eat. (The fish, if they could, might ask you to remember that it's also okay not to eat them.)

The radiation work was done by some of my colleagues at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where I have a desk, and Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Lab in Monterey, Calif., where I've occasionally encountered a welcome mat.

That is to say that when my mother phoned, I did not let on that I'd actually known about the Fukushima-tuna-radiation link for months but had been sworn to professional secrecy. Now the scientific review process has done its thing, resulting in the publication and unveiling of the results, and my mother has heard the news, so I am free to spill a few more beans.

How I first learned about it was one of those exceptionally cool moments in the life of a scientist, when you get to peek behind the curtain of discovery for a privileged preview. In this case, the curtain was the menu at my favorite local Indian Restaurant.

Nicholas Fisher, in whose Stony Brook lab much of the analyses were done, had phoned to invite me to dinner with Dan Madigan, lead author of the published study, and Zofia Baumann, who did a lot of the analytical work. Knowing of my working interest in things tuna and animals migratory, they had something to share.

Around the time the dumplings hit the table, Dr. Fisher hit me with the findings and I said, "Holy shit."

He explained that the fish were quite safe to eat, and I said, "Holy shit."

Madigan explained that though they detected Fukushima radiation in bluefin tuna, which migrate across the northern Pacific, they found none in yellowfin tuna, which don't. He said he would expect that certain seabirds are also quickly spreading radiation across the ocean and I said, "Holy shit."

The waiter came back, and I said, "Saag paneer, please." Now the thing is, we spent a lot of time talking about the ubiquity of background radiation (even bananas have "radiation"), about safe levels of radiation. We discussed how the 15 bluefin tuna they sampled had cesium radiation levels 10 times higher than fish taken before the tsunami -- but that even those levels are still very low, safe to eat. As I said, it's the mercury in the tuna that can certainly make you sick; to be on the safe side it's probably best not to eat more than about 8 ounces of bluefin or yellowfin tuna per week.

So we talked about all that. We talked about migrations, about birds called sooty shearwaters and how they breed in New Zealand, fly past Japan, fly through Alaskan waters, come down the coast of California, cross the tropics and go all the way back to New Zealand -- every year. We talked of the albatrosses that I've seen breeding on tiny mid-Pacific atolls, capable of gliding hundreds of miles without flapping and commanding the whole ocean in their quest for food. And of the 1,000-pound leatherback turtles that breed in Indonesia, then migrate past Japan to feed in the jellyfish grounds off California and Oregon, taking more than a year, stroke upon stroke in the trackless sea in storm and calm alike, to make the round-trip.

I thought of the ageless mystery of all this, the profound miracle, the quiet patience of the planet. I thought of these animals playing their ancient rhythms to the music of the spheres, keeping time to the faith of Earth. I thought of how they struggle to survive against such long natural odds, such high background levels of death. Of how many fall naturally to disease, to predators, to accidents, but how enough have lived these countless millions of years to make all the difference, to be with us as we've arrived to join their voyage. I thought of their newly acquired, safe-to-eat radiation, their mercury burdens, and the fishing hooks and nets we send their way. Of trade-offs made and balances foregone. And I thought, this world, wondrous so far beyond comprehension, and, verily, so fucked up.

The saving grace: the creatures don't understand. The tragedy: neither do we.

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Carl Safina's recent book, "The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World," has won the 2012 Orion Book Award.

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