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Improving Seafood Safety and Security with Nuclear Techniques

21 September 2017
More than three billion people around the world depend on the ocean as a source of income and food. Pollution from agriculture, heavy industry, untreated sewage and litter, such as plastics, can, in high concentrations, jeopardise seafood safety and even threaten human health.

Seabream (Sparus aurata)Contaminants include trace metals like mercury, persistent organic pollutants such as pesticides and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) as well as radionuclides. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the occurrences of harmful algal blooms which can produce biotoxins that cause foodborne illnesses.

Japanese flatfish (Paralichthys olivaceus)
Nuclear and isotopic tools provide insight into the movement of contaminants in the marine environment, their transfer to marine organisms and accumulation up the food chain from one organism to another, making their way ultimately onto our plates. The IAEA Environment Laboratories work with Member States to improve understanding of fish and shellfish contamination and help foster seafood safety and security.
Pollution, biotoxins, environmental changes such as variations in temperature and pH constitute multiple stressors which can have effects on marine organisms. Researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories use radiotracer techniques to study these processes, such as the combined impact of increased temperatures due to climate change and contaminant uptake in fish. 

Turbot (Scophthalmus maximus )
Olive flounders are commercially-important fish eaten by many people around the world.  Living on the seabed, they are in constant contact with sediment and contaminants that sink to the ocean floor. The IAEA Environment Laboratories are studying how these particular fish accumulate, retain, and then expel radio-caesium over time.

Japanese flatfish (Paralichthys olivaceus)Using radiotracers, researchers can gain valuable insight into the main pathways of contamination in marine organisms and compare rates of transfer from sediment, seawater, and food. 

Japanese flatfish (Paralichthys olivaceus)
The IAEA Environment Laboratories study contamination risk in a wide range of species. Shrimp are an important part of ecosystems: they eat debris and small organisms and are themselves eaten by fish and other large species. They are a step in the study of the transfer of contaminants up the food chain.

Common prawn (Palaemon serratus)
IAEA researchers have developed a technique to replicate the human digestive process in the laboratory by creating a mix of enzymes. This allows researchers to observe which contaminants are broken down during digestion and which remain available, to be potentially absorbed by the human body.
These experiments also examine fish samples cooked in different ways, to see if this has an impact on contaminant transfer. 

Common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis)
Each year, outbreaks of harmful algal blooms are responsible for thousands of poisonings all over the globe due to the consumption of contaminated seafood. Fish may appear healthy yet carry the toxins and transfer them to humans upon consumption, making them ill. The IAEA uses nuclear and isotopic techniques to gain a better understanding of harmful algal blooms and develop Member States’ capacity to rapidly detect and quantify marine biotoxins in the marine environment and in seafood.

Brown surgeonfish (Acanthurus nigrofuscus)
Since the industrial revolution, acidity in the oceans has increased by 26% and is set to increase by 150% by the end of the century. Below a certain pH level, conditions become corrosive to calcium carbonate which is used by many organisms to build shells and skeletons. This can impact their ability to grow and could pose a threat to the sustainability of certain species and ultimately to food security. 

Common mussel (Mytilus edulis)

Pollution can, in high concentrations, jeopardise seafood safety and even threaten human health. By applying cutting-edge nuclear and isotopic techniques, the IAEA Environment Laboratories help Member States improve understanding of fish and shellfish contamination and help foster seafood safety and security.

Last update: 30 September 2019

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