No matter which species or variety of salmon you enjoy, whether wild or farmed, you’ll never have to wonder, “Is salmon high in mercury?” It’s not. Salmon lovers will be pleased to learn that their favorite catch has one of the lowest mercury contents around.
What to Know About Mercury in Seafood
Mercury, also known as methylmercury, is a potent toxin that is found in certain sources of sea life, as well as a few land-based foods. It’s a pollutant that originates, largely, in the burning of fossil fuels. The toxic particles eventually make their way to the sea, where the mercury enters the marine food chain. When we consume seafood contaminated with mercury, our bodies begin to accumulate the compound; in large quantities, the toxin begins to affect our bodily functions. Pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as children, are at particular risk for serious complications from mercury poisoning, as it can permanently disrupt developmental processes in fetuses and newborns.
Mercury levels in salmon are low, since mercury is a contaminant that generally accumulates in species higher up in the food chain as it gets passed up from smaller prey to larger predators. That’s why larger catch like swordfish, ahi tuna, and bigger species of mackerel tend to contain mercury levels that are dangerous to humans when consumed in large quantities.
Moderate levels of mercury can even be found in more modestly-sized fish like Pacific cod, halibut, and sablefish, according to the National Resource Defense Council. For pregnant women or women who are planning to become pregnant, the organization suggests limiting the consumption of these species to 6 servings or less each month — once or twice a week — in order to protect these vulnerable fish lovers.
There’s not a solid consensus on this though, as Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services lists Pacific cod and sablefish as varieties that can be consumed without any quantity restrictions; halibut, depending on the whole fish’s size, ought to be limited to anywhere between 1 to 4 servings per week.
Salmon is Considered Safe
In contrast, experts across the board have not proposed any restrictions on salmon consumption for anyone, based on its negligible mercury content. Salmon, unequivocally, is safe to consume on a regular, unrestricted basis.
In fact, integrating plenty of wild salmon into one’s diet — especially when pregnant, planning to be pregnant, or nursing — is actually a great idea, since the omega-3 content of this fish helps to support healthy, cognitive development in utero and into early childhood. The American Pregnancy Association encourages smart fish consumption throughout pregnancy due to its critical benefits to the mother; you can read more about that in a post from one of our founders. And while you’re at it, check out our blog posts to learn more about the benefits of omega-3-rich seafood for babies (even in small quantities), and for young children as they age up into healthy adolescents.
What About PCBs?
Rather than asking, “Is wild caught salmon high in mercury,” some of you may be wondering about other contaminants that may be present in Alaskan salmon.
Following the leaks from the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011, there was some concern that fish from Alaskan waters would be contaminated with radioactive particles. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation concluded in a 2018 study that no traces of Fukushima-related radioactive pollutants could be found. Read up on the details in our informative blog post on the topic.
The contaminant to look for in salmon is PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which make their way into salmon near the shores — essentially, PCBs are industrial runoff that pollute the coastlines. Importantly, these PCBs are found in farmed salmon, since salmon farms are situated where these pollutants tend to end up. Wild salmon, in contrast, spend most of their lives hunting in the far reaches of the sea where you’re less likely to find high concentrations of pollutants.
So, whether we are talking about mercury or other pollutants, wild Alaskan salmon is the cleanest, healthiest catch around. It’s your guilt-free, go-to protein option for safe and sustainable seafood.