Crying Wolf: Mercury in Aquarium Fish Foods, Social Media and the Controversy that Shouldn’t Have Been

Red bars indicate mean mercury levels in seafood the FDA advises women of childbearing age and children not to eat because of Hg concentrations, while blue bars indicate the Hg concentrations in the seafood used in the most popular frozen aquarium fish foods. Source of data: FDA 1990-2010 , "National Marine Fisheries Service Survey of Trace Elements in the Fishery Resource" Report 1978, "The Occurrence of Mercury in the Fishery Resources of the Gulf of Mexico" Report 2000

Red bars indicate mean mercury levels in seafood the FDA advises women of childbearing age and children not to eat because of Hg concentrations, while blue bars indicate the Hg concentrations in the seafood used in the most popular frozen aquarium fish foods. Source of data: FDA 1990-2010 , “National Marine Fisheries Service Survey of Trace Elements in the Fishery Resource” Report 1978, “The Occurrence of Mercury in the Fishery Resources of the Gulf of Mexico” Report 2000

On Friday evening, April 17th, 2015, Thomas Brown of Thomas Vision Reef, a self-described “aquarium web series” on YouTube, lit up a small corner of the social media landscape with what Brown termed “big news.” Brown told his more than 2000 followers on Facebook that he had been running tests on the top three frozen fish foods used by aquarists to feed their aquarium fishes. The tests were for a video, he said, and in the process of having the tests run, he claims he discovered one of the foods had “high levels of ‘Mercury’!” According to Brown, these elevated levels of mercury may be harming one’s aquarium.

“Which ever frozen food you are currently using send it in to be tested by triton [sic] and that way you can get the results for yourself and make sure your tank is safe. Now I have to say I am not sure of [sic] Mercury is bad for you tank but the levels found in the found [sic] were way past FDA regulations for Human consumption.”
—Thomas Brown

Brown concluded his post Friday by expressing his hope that “the company is not aware of this and that they see this post and fix the problem.” Immediately a debate ensued, and, unfortunately, it became one of those debates that almost immediately left data behind at the door. In large part, this is because Brown never presented any data in his post and much of the debate has centered on the data never presented.

After looking in depth at the numbers (see below), it seems clear to me that, in all probability, Brown either received incorrect results or misinterpreted the results. The situation, however, is more than a simple mistake or rush to judgment. In fact, in an interesting way, it is not unlike a similar story I covered in the seafood industry–an instance where consumers made choices based predominately on risk, and those choices ultimately proved detrimental to their health because they didn’t understand the data in the face of a proliferation of fear-mongering in the popular (and, yes, social) media. More on that later, but first, let’s look at the data.

[Read the Full Story at Reef to Rainforest]

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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