Oceana outraged by Spanish Ministry’s repeated refusal to turn over data on mercury contamination in fish

Side-stepping high court ruling, and in flagrant disregard of freedom of information law, Ministry of Environment delivered incomplete report, hiding data that might reveal serious health risks.

Press Release Date: March 1, 2011

Location: Madrid


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Oceana is outraged by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs’ repeated refusals to provide the reports on concentrations of mercury and other heavy metals in the fish that is commercialized and consumed in Spain. The Spanish High Court ruled in favour of Oceana in 2009, demanding the delivery of the reports completed by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute (IEO) between 2002 and 2005. Oceana suspects that the Ministry is refusing to turn over the reports because the information they contain may be disturbing.

The ruling of the Spanish High Court, made known on 23 December 2009, obliges the Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs to turn over this information to Oceana in accordance with Law 27/2006 of 18 July, governing the rights to access information, public participation and access to justice concerning environmental issues. The Spanish High Court reiterated this obligation in December 2010. Oceana had been unsuccessfully demanding the Ministry turn over the information since 2007 and continued to do so after the ruling.

Almost one year after the ruling, on 30 November 2010, the Ministry sent Oceana an incomplete report that only included small fishery species. Despite the fact that the original report was comprised of various volumes and hundreds of pages, the Ministry only sent a fragment of 104 pages in which species like swordfish, shortfin mako and blue sharks were not included. These marine species, apart from being widely consumed in Spain, are the ones that present the highest concentrations of heavy metals.

“The Ministry’s repeated refusals to turn over the reports concerning levels of heavy metals and arsenic in fish commercialized in Spain leads us to believe that the data must be extremely disturbing. Given the toxicity of mercury, Oceana is afraid there may be health risks involved,” stated Xavier Pastor, executive director of Oceana in Europe. “That’s why we demand that the Ministry of the Environment immediately turn over the original report, in compliance with the Spanish High Court ruling and current legislation.”

“The Ministry’s attitude is a serious grievance against democratic rule of law because it is obligated to adhere to the Spanish High Court’s ruling in accordance with our constitution, respecting citizens’ rights to access environmental information in the hands of public authorities,” points out Ana Barreira, Oceana’s lawyer and director of the International Institute for Law and the Environment.

Mercury contamination comes from polluting companies, such as chlorine factories that use mercury cells in their production processes and thermal plants whose waste ends up in the oceans and fish. The highest levels occur in species like cetaceans, swordfish and sharks, because these predators are at the end of the food chain and accumulate the mercury present in the organisms they ingest. In recent years, certain species have been removed from markets in other EU countries due to the presence of high concentrations of mercury. Current data probably exceeds the figures in the reports that Oceana requested, which date back to 2002.

“The reports completed by the IEO for the Ministry were funded by the National Budget,” points out Pastor. “Taxpayers financed the study on mercury contamination in fish they consume, and despite the fact that the law guarantees transparency in information concerning environmental issues, the government is hiding data that may reveal a serious health risk for citizens.”

More information: Mercury contamination