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Stephen Palumbi: The hidden toxins in the fish we eat -- and how to stop them

April 10, 2010

There's a tight link between the ocean's health and ours, says marine biologist Stephen Palumbi. He shows how toxins at the bottom of the ocean food chain find their way into our bodies, with a shocking story of toxic contamination from a Japanese fish market. His work points a way forward for saving the oceans' health -- and humanity's.

Stephen Palumbi - Marine biologist
Stephen Palumbi studies the way humanity and ocean life interact and intertwine. His insights into our codependence offer ideas for protecting both the ocean and ourselves. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
It can be a very complicated thing, the ocean.
00:16
And it can be a very complicated thing, what human health is.
00:18
And bringing those two together might seem a very daunting task,
00:21
but what I'm going to try to say is that
00:24
even in that complexity,
00:26
there's some simple themes that I think,
00:28
if we understand, we can really move forward.
00:30
And those simple themes aren't really
00:33
themes about the complex science of what's going on,
00:35
but things that we all pretty well know.
00:37
And I'm going to start with this one:
00:39
If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.
00:41
We know that, right? We've experienced that.
00:44
And if we just take that
00:47
and we build from there,
00:49
then we can go to the next step,
00:51
which is that if the ocean ain't happy,
00:53
ain't nobody happy.
00:56
That's the theme of my talk.
00:58
And we're making the ocean pretty unhappy in a lot of different ways.
01:00
This is a shot of Cannery Row in 1932.
01:03
Cannery Row, at the time,
01:06
had the biggest industrial
01:08
canning operation on the west coast.
01:10
We piled enormous amounts of pollution
01:12
into the air and into the water.
01:15
Rolf Bolin, who was a professor
01:17
at the Hopkin's Marine Station where I work,
01:19
wrote in the 1940s that
01:21
"The fumes from the scum floating on the inlets of the bay
01:23
were so bad they turned
01:26
lead-based paints black."
01:28
People working in these canneries
01:30
could barely stay there all day because of the smell,
01:32
but you know what they came out saying?
01:35
They say, "You know what you smell?
01:37
You smell money."
01:39
That pollution was money to that community,
01:41
and those people dealt with the pollution
01:44
and absorbed it into their skin and into their bodies
01:46
because they needed the money.
01:49
We made the ocean unhappy; we made people very unhappy,
01:51
and we made them unhealthy.
01:54
The connection between ocean health and human health
01:57
is actually based upon another couple simple adages,
01:59
and I want to call that
02:02
"pinch a minnow, hurt a whale."
02:04
The pyramid of ocean life ...
02:06
Now, when an ecologist looks at the ocean -- I have to tell you --
02:08
we look at the ocean in a very different way,
02:11
and we see different things than when a regular person looks at the ocean
02:13
because when an ecologist looks at the ocean,
02:16
we see all those interconnections.
02:18
We see the base of the food chain,
02:20
the plankton, the small things,
02:22
and we see how those animals
02:24
are food to animals in the middle of the pyramid,
02:26
and on so up this diagram.
02:29
And that flow, that flow of life,
02:33
from the very base up to the very top,
02:35
is the flow that ecologists see.
02:37
And that's what we're trying to preserve
02:39
when we say, "Save the ocean. Heal the ocean."
02:41
It's that pyramid.
02:44
Now why does that matter for human health?
02:46
Because when we jam things in the bottom
02:49
of that pyramid that shouldn't be there,
02:51
some very frightening things happen.
02:53
Pollutants, some pollutants have been created by us:
02:56
molecules like PCBs
02:59
that can't be broken down by our bodies.
03:01
And they go in the base of that pyramid,
03:03
and they drift up; they're passed up that way,
03:05
on to predators and on to the top predators,
03:08
and in so doing,
03:10
they accumulate.
03:12
Now, to bring that home, I thought I'd invent a little game.
03:14
We don't really have to play it; we can just think about it here.
03:16
It's the Styrofoam and chocolate game.
03:18
Imagine that when we got on this boat,
03:20
we were all given
03:23
two Styrofoam peanuts.
03:25
Can't do much with them: Put them in your pocket.
03:27
Suppose the rules are: every time you offer somebody a drink,
03:29
you give them the drink,
03:32
and you give them your Styrofoam peanuts too.
03:34
What'll happen is that the Styrofoam peanuts
03:36
will start moving through our society here,
03:38
and they will accumulate in
03:40
the drunkest, stingiest people.
03:42
(Laughter)
03:44
There's no mechanism in this game
03:49
for them to go anywhere but into
03:51
a bigger and bigger pile
03:53
of indigestible Styrofoam peanuts.
03:55
And that's exactly what happens with PDBs
03:57
in this food pyramid:
03:59
They accumulate into the top of it.
04:01
Now suppose, instead of Styrofoam peanuts,
04:04
we take these lovely little chocolates that we get
04:06
and we had those instead.
04:08
Well, some of us would be eating those chocolates
04:10
instead of passing them around,
04:12
and instead of accumulating,
04:14
they will just pass into our group here
04:16
and not accumulate in any one group
04:19
because they're absorbed by us.
04:21
And that's the difference between a PCB
04:23
and, say, something natural like an omega-3,
04:25
something we want out of the marine food chain.
04:27
PCBs accumulate.
04:31
We have great examples of that, unfortunately.
04:33
PCBs accumulate in dolphins
04:35
in Sarasota Bay, in Texas, in North Carolina.
04:37
They get into the food chain.
04:40
The dolphins eat the fish
04:42
that have PCBs from the plankton,
04:44
and those PCBs, being fat-soluble,
04:46
accumulate in these dolphins.
04:49
Now, a dolphin,
04:51
mother dolphin, any dolphin --
04:53
there's only one way
04:55
that a PCB can get out of a dolphin.
04:57
And what's that?
04:59
In mother's milk.
05:01
Here's a diagram of the PCB load
05:03
of dolphins in Sarasota Bay.
05:05
Adult males: a huge load.
05:07
Juveniles: a huge load.
05:09
Females after their first calf is already weaned:
05:11
a lower load.
05:13
Those females, they're not trying to.
05:15
Those females are passing the PCBs
05:17
in the fat of their own mother's milk
05:19
into their offspring,
05:22
and their offspring don't survive.
05:24
The death rate in these dolphins,
05:27
for the first calf born of every female dolphin,
05:29
is 60 to 80 percent.
05:31
These mothers pump their first offspring
05:33
full of this pollutant,
05:36
and most of them die.
05:38
Now, the mother then can go and reproduce,
05:40
but what a terrible price to pay
05:42
for the accumulation of this pollutant
05:44
in these animals --
05:46
the death of the first-born calf.
05:48
There's another top predator in the ocean, it turns out.
05:51
That top predator, of course, is us.
05:54
And we also are eating meat
05:56
that comes from some of these same places.
05:58
This is whale meat
06:00
that I photographed in a grocery store in Tokyo --
06:02
or is it?
06:04
In fact, what we did a few years ago
06:06
was learn how to smuggle
06:08
a molecular biology lab into Tokyo
06:10
and use it to genetically test the DNA
06:12
out of whale meat samples
06:15
and identify what they really were.
06:17
And some of those whale meat samples were whale meat.
06:19
Some of them were illegal whale meat, by the way.
06:21
That's another story.
06:23
But some of them were not whale meat at all.
06:25
Even though they were labeled whale meat, they were dolphin meat.
06:27
Some of them were dolphin liver. Some of them were dolphin blubber.
06:30
And those dolphin parts
06:33
had a huge load of PCBs,
06:35
dioxins and heavy metals.
06:37
And that huge load was passing into the people
06:40
that ate this meat.
06:42
It turns out that a lot of dolphins
06:44
are being sold as meat
06:46
in the whale meat market around the world.
06:48
That's a tragedy for those populations,
06:50
but it's also a tragedy
06:52
for the people eating them
06:54
because they don't know that that's toxic meat.
06:56
We had these data a few years ago.
06:59
I remember sitting at my desk
07:02
being about the only person in the world
07:04
who knew that whale meat being sold in these markets
07:06
was really dolphin meat, and it was toxic.
07:09
It had two-to-three-to-400 times the toxic loads
07:12
ever allowed by the EPA.
07:15
And I remember there sitting at my desk thinking,
07:17
"Well, I know this. This is a great scientific discovery,"
07:20
but it was so awful.
07:23
And for the very first time in my scientific career,
07:25
I broke scientific protocol,
07:27
which is that you take the data and publish them in scientific journals
07:29
and then begin to talk about them.
07:32
We sent a very polite letter
07:34
to the Minister of Health in Japan
07:36
and simply pointed out that
07:39
this is an intolerable situation, not for us,
07:42
but for the people of Japan
07:44
because mothers who may be breastfeeding,
07:46
who may have young children,
07:49
would be buying something that they thought was healthy,
07:51
but it was really toxic.
07:54
That led to a whole series of other campaigns in Japan,
07:56
and I'm really proud to say that at this point,
07:59
it's very difficult to buy anything in Japan
08:02
that's labeled incorrectly,
08:05
even though they're still selling whale meat,
08:07
which I believe they shouldn't.
08:09
But at least it's labeled correctly,
08:11
and you're no longer going to be buying
08:13
toxic dolphin meat instead.
08:15
It isn't just there that this happens,
08:18
but in a natural diet of some communities
08:21
in the Canadian arctic and in the United States
08:23
and in the European arctic,
08:25
a natural diet of seals and whales
08:27
leads to an accumulation of PCBs
08:30
that have gathered up from all parts of the world
08:32
and ended up in these women.
08:35
These women have toxic breast milk.
08:37
They cannot feed their offspring, their children,
08:40
their breast milk
08:43
because of the accumulation of these toxins
08:45
in their food chain,
08:47
in their part of the world's
08:49
ocean pyramid.
08:51
That means their immune systems are compromised.
08:53
It means that their children's development
08:56
can be compromised.
08:58
And the world's attention on this over the last decade
09:00
has reduced the problem
09:03
for these women,
09:05
not by changing the pyramid,
09:07
but by changing what they particularly eat out of it.
09:09
We've taken them out of their natural pyramid
09:11
in order to solve this problem.
09:13
That's a good thing for this particular acute problem,
09:16
but it does nothing to solve the pyramid problem.
09:18
There's other ways of breaking the pyramid.
09:20
The pyramid, if we jam things in the bottom,
09:23
can get backed up like a sewer line that's clogged.
09:26
And if we jam nutrients, sewage, fertilizer
09:29
in the base of that food pyramid,
09:32
it can back up all through it.
09:34
We end up with things we've heard about before:
09:36
red tides, for example,
09:38
which are blooms of toxic algae
09:40
floating through the oceans
09:42
causing neurological damage.
09:44
We can also see blooms of bacteria,
09:46
blooms of viruses in the ocean.
09:48
These are two shots of a red tide coming on shore here
09:50
and a bacteria
09:53
in the genus vibrio,
09:55
which includes the genus that has cholera in it.
09:57
How many people have seen a "beach closed" sign?
10:00
Why does that happen?
10:05
It happens because we have jammed so much
10:07
into the base of the natural ocean pyramid
10:09
that these bacteria clog it up
10:11
and overfill onto our beaches.
10:13
Often what jams us up is sewage.
10:15
Now how many of you have ever gone to a state park or a national park
10:18
where you had a big sign at the front saying,
10:21
"Closed because human sewage
10:23
is so far over this park
10:25
that you can't use it"?
10:27
Not very often. We wouldn't tolerate that.
10:29
We wouldn't tolerate our parks
10:32
being swamped by human sewage,
10:34
but beaches are closed a lot in our country.
10:37
They're closed more and more and more all around the world for the same reason,
10:39
and I believe we shouldn't tolerate that either.
10:42
It's not just a question of cleanliness;
10:45
it's also a question of
10:47
how those organisms
10:49
then turn into human disease.
10:51
These vibrios, these bacteria, can actually infect people.
10:53
They can go into your skin and create skin infections.
10:56
This is a graph from NOAA's ocean and human health initiative,
10:59
showing the rise of the infections
11:02
by vibrio in people
11:05
over the last few years.
11:08
Surfers, for example, know this incredibly.
11:10
And if you can see on some surfing sites,
11:13
in fact, not only do you see
11:16
what the waves are like or what the weather's like,
11:18
but on some surf rider sites,
11:20
you see a little flashing poo alert.
11:22
That means that the beach might have great waves,
11:25
but it's a dangerous place for surfers to be
11:28
because they can carry with them,
11:30
even after a great day of surfing,
11:32
this legacy of an infection that might take a very long time to solve.
11:34
Some of these infections are actually carrying
11:37
antibiotic resistance genes now,
11:39
and that makes them even more difficult.
11:41
These same infections
11:43
create harmful algal blooms.
11:45
Those blooms are generating other kinds of chemicals.
11:47
This is just a simple list of some of the types of poisons
11:50
that come out of these harmful algal blooms:
11:53
shellfish poisoning,fish ciguatera,
11:55
diarrheic shellfish poisoning -- you don't want to know about that --
11:58
neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, paralytic shellfish poisoning.
12:01
These are things that are getting into our food chain
12:04
because of these blooms.
12:06
Rita Calwell very famously
12:08
traced a very interesting story
12:10
of cholera into human communities,
12:12
brought there, not by
12:15
a normal human vector,
12:17
but by a marine vector, this copepod.
12:19
Copepods are small crustaceans.
12:22
They're a tiny fraction of an inch long,
12:24
and they can carry on their little legs
12:26
some of the cholera bacteria
12:28
that then leads to human disease.
12:30
That has sparked cholera epidemics
12:33
in ports along the world
12:35
and has led to increased concentration
12:37
on trying to make sure shipping
12:40
doesn't move these
12:42
vectors of cholera around the world.
12:44
So what do you do?
12:46
We have major problems in disrupted ecosystem flow
12:48
that the pyramid may not be working so well,
12:51
that the flow from the base up into it
12:53
is being blocked and clogged.
12:55
What do you do when you have this sort of disrupted flow?
12:57
Well, there's a bunch of things you could do.
13:00
You could call Joe the Plumber, for example.
13:03
And he could come in
13:05
and fix the flow.
13:07
But in fact, if you look around the world,
13:09
not only are there hope spots
13:12
for where we may be able to fix problems,
13:14
there have been places where problems have been fixed,
13:16
where people have come to grips with these issues
13:18
and begun to turn them around.
13:20
Monterey is one of those.
13:22
I started out showing how much
13:24
we had distressed the Monterey Bay ecosystem
13:26
with pollution and the canning industry
13:29
and all of the attendant problems.
13:31
In 1932, that's the picture.
13:33
In 2009, the picture is dramatically different.
13:35
The canneries are gone. The pollution has abated.
13:39
But there's a greater sense here
13:42
that what the individual communities need
13:44
is working ecosystems.
13:46
They need a functioning pyramid from the base all the way to the top.
13:48
And that pyramid
13:51
in Monterey, right now,
13:53
because of the efforts of a lot of different people,
13:55
is functioning better than it's ever functioned
13:57
for the last 150 years.
13:59
It didn't happen accidentally.
14:02
It happened because many people put their time and effort
14:04
and their pioneering spirit into this.
14:07
On the left there, Julia Platt,
14:09
the mayor of my little hometown in Pacific Grove.
14:11
At 74 years old, became mayor
14:13
because something had to be done
14:15
to protect the ocean.
14:17
In 1931, she produced California's first
14:19
community-based marine protected area,
14:21
right next to the biggest polluting cannery,
14:24
because Julia knew
14:27
that when the canneries eventually were gone,
14:29
the ocean needed a place to grow from,
14:31
that the ocean needed a place to spark a seed,
14:34
and she wanted to provide that seed.
14:37
Other people, like David Packard and Julie Packard,
14:39
who were instrumental in producing the Monterey Bay aquarium
14:42
to lock into people's notion
14:45
that the ocean
14:47
and the health of the ocean ecosystem
14:49
were just as important to the economy of this area
14:52
as eating the ecosystem would be.
14:55
That change in thinking has led to a dramatic shift,
14:57
not only in the fortunes of Monterey Bay,
15:00
but other places around the world.
15:03
Well, I want to leave you with the thought that
15:05
what we're really trying to do here
15:07
is protect this ocean pyramid,
15:09
and that ocean pyramid
15:11
connects to our own pyramid of life.
15:13
It's an ocean planet,
15:15
and we think of ourselves as a terrestrial species,
15:17
but the pyramid of life in the ocean
15:21
and our own lives on land
15:24
are intricately connected.
15:26
And it's only through having the ocean being healthy
15:28
that we can remain healthy ourselves.
15:30
Thank you very much.
15:32
(Applause)
15:34

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Stephen Palumbi - Marine biologist
Stephen Palumbi studies the way humanity and ocean life interact and intertwine. His insights into our codependence offer ideas for protecting both the ocean and ourselves.

Why you should listen

Stephen Palumbi teaches and does research in evolution and marine biology at Stanford University, and has long been fascinated by how quickly the world around us changes. His work on the genetics of marine organisms tries to focus on basic evolutionary questions but also on practical solutions to questions about how to preserve and protect the diverse life in the sea. DNA data on the genetics of marine populations like corals helps in the design and implementation of marine protected areas for conservation and fisheries enhancement. A second focus is on the use of molecular genetic techniques for the elucidation of past population sizes and dynamics of baleen whales, with the notion of recreating a better sense of the ecology of the virgin ocean.
 
Palumbi has lectured extensively on human-induced evolutionary change, has used genetic detective work to identify whales for sale in retail markets, and is working on new methods to help design marine parks for conservation. His first book for non-scientists, The Evolution Explosion, documents the impact of humans on evolution. His latest is an unusual environmental success story called The Death and Life of Monterey Bay. He also helped write and research and appears in the BBC series The Future Is Wild and the History Channel's World Without People. Other recent films appearances include The End of the Line and an upcoming Canadian Broadcasting series One Ocean.

Palumbi's other passion: microdocumentaries. His Short Attention Span Science Theater site received a million hits last year. And his band Sustainable Soul has several songs out, including "Crab Love" and "The Last Fish Left."

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