The BeneFISHiary Mobile App for Bermuda: Linking food safety to environmental sustainability in a consumer-friendly way

Recipient of a 2016 IAEH Small Grant Award

Many media stories have supported claims about both the risks and benefits of fish consumption. This leads to much interest, but also some confusion regarding whether it’s safe to consume fish – especially for pregnant women and for children.

BeneFISHiary is a mobile “app” that helps users make informed decisions about the fish they eat. Developed for Bermudians, who are strongly connected to the marine environment that surrounds them, BeneFISHiary provides the best evidence-based information available on local and imported fish regarding their average mercury and nutrient (omega-3 fatty acids and selenium) concentrations. Users can also learn more on the environmental sustainability of various fish species found in the seas that surround Bermuda.

The creators of this app are a multidisciplinary team including an epidemiologist from the University of Hawai‘i (Dr. Catherine Pirkle), an anthropologist and conservationist (Dr. Philippe Rouja), and a designer who specializes in creating interactive stories powered by technologies (Mr. Tidjane Tall). The inspiration for BeneFISHiary originated from concerns about communication gaps between the Bermuda Department of Health, healthcareproviders on the islands, and pregnant women.

Briefly, research in the early 2000s that was initiated by the team’s late mentor- Dr. Eric Dewailly- found elevated blood concentrations of mercury in Bermudian pregnant women. These levels were high enough to adversely affect the health and development of the children exposed during pregnancy. The researchers found that locally harvested fish species were mostly responsible for the elevated mercury levels. Subsequently, the team sampled several hundred local fish species to measure their mercury concentrations, as well as the beneficial nutrients of omega-3 fatty acids and selenium. The later two nutrients may counteract some of the adverse consequents of mercury exposure. The researchers then created Bermuda-specific fish consumption guidelines that were shared with the Bermuda Department of Health and healthcare providers serving pregnant women. These guidelines highlighted a multitude of local fish species that were low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids and thus safe to eat. These guidelines specifically aimed to avoid scaring women away from fish during pregnancy by providing nuanced information that was species-specific. However, there were communication difficulties and the risks of fish consumption were overemphasized.

In the years following the dissemination of these guidelines, blood mercury concentrations in Bermudian pregnant women dropped five-fold. While this drop was a public health success, there were concerns that overall fish intake was falling. In 2013, Dr. Pirkle and Dr. Rouja conducted a study examining public health messaging about fish consumption during pregnancy. Their work demonstrated that healthcare providers and the Internet were the primary sources of information about fish consumption during pregnancy and that pregnant women and their providers were confused about which fish should or should not be consumed during pregnancy. Some healthcare providers were counseling pregnant women to reduce fish consumption to no more than two servings per week, even though many local fish species could be consumed without restriction. Unfortunately, some of the messages provided by local healthcare professionals may have been depriving pregnant women in Bermuda of essential nutrients found in fish that our important to optimal child development.

Thus, to assist providers and pregnant women on the islands, we created BeneFISHiary. With this mobile app, users can search local species and obtain the most recent information about average mercury concentrations, as well as healthy nutrients. Moreover, the app contains species-specific sustainability details, given concerns about overfishing in the Atlantic. It is beautifully illustrated, user-friendly, and even contains tasting notes for users curious to try new fish in their cooking. The creators of this app hope to scale-it up to other communities with strong local ties to the ocean. To try BeneFISHiary, download it from your local app store or visit: http://benefishiary.com.

 

Catherine M. Pirkle  |  cmpirkle@hawaii.edu

Dr. Pirkle is an epidemiologist whose interests center on improving the health and well-being of pregnant women and young children around the world. Her activities strive to improve both provider and patient knowledge on the health risks associated with mercury from diets rich in fish and other seafood, as well as balance these with the nutritional benefits that can come with these foods. Finally, she is deeply concerned about the state of the planet’s oceans, which are being overfished at an extraordinary rate, and hopes that her work can better inform consumers about the sustainability of the foods they eat.

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