Toxin levels in Baltic herring drop significantly, spurring export hopes

Thanks to stricter pollution laws, toxin levels have been dropping steadily in the Baltic.

The small silvery herring is one of the most abundant species in the Baltic Sea, but little of it goes to human consumption. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

Herring is one of the most common species of fish in the Baltic Sea, but sales of it for human food are restricted by the EU. Lower concentrations of dioxins and PCB compounds could remove restrictions on selling and exporting this abundant fish species. Now most of the catch goes to feed fur animals and farmed fish, with dioxins removed during the process of making fishmeal.

Figures released by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) on Thursday show that concentrations of these environmental toxins have dropped by as much as 80 percent over the last 40 years.

Crucially, even toxin levels in large herring of 19cm or more in length now fall below the maximum limit values for these toxins set by the EU for fish and fish products. Larger, older herring contain larger toxin concentrations.

As concentrations of dioxin and PCB compounds in wild Baltic herring may exceed the legislative maximum allowable limits, the EU only allows the sale of fish over 17cm in Finland and Sweden.

For a 19cm herring, the average dioxin and PCB level is now around four, well below the EU maximum of 6.5, THL researcher Panu Rantakokko tells Yle.

Benefits outweigh risk

According to the THL, the health benefits of eating Baltic herring outweighs the slight health risk posed by their low levels of dioxins.

“It is safe to eat domestic fish when complying with the Finnish Food Authority’s recommendations. Fish contains beneficial fatty acids, numerous vitamins and minerals as well as a large amount of protein. Eating fish will prevent ailments such as cardiovascular disease,” THL Research Professor Hannu Kiviranta said in a statement.

If the maximum size allowable for export was raised from 17 to 19cm, that would allow Finnish fishing companies to sell herring and products made from them to other EU countries.

Rantakokko points out that fish between 17 and 19cm made up 27 percent of the herring catch in the Bothnian Sea last year, meaning that a sizeable chunk of the catch is not available for export.

He says the ball is now in the court of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is responsible for negotiating with the European Commission on such issues.

The THL and the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) say that thanks to stricter pollution laws, toxin levels have been dropping steadily in the Baltic and predict that by 2022 even 21cm herring will be safe by EU standards. That is close to the maximum length for the small silvery fish.

Last year, herring accounted for 126 million kilos of the total fish catch in Finnish territorial waters, which was 148 million kilos.