Deep fried, baked, broiled, shish-kabobed or raw, fish is delicious. It’s high in protein, low in fat and contains compounds that improve memory and brain function. But some fish harbor mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxins that can cause cancer and other health problems. Beyond size and bag limits, fish consumption advisories can help make sure it’s safe to eat your latest big catch.
Tracking Which Fish are Safe to Eat
Consumption advisories are recommendations from state or local officials to either limit or refrain entirely from eating certain species. The problem comes up the food chain. Small fish eat plankton that has absorbed contaminants. Larger fish eat lots of smaller fish and the contaminants build up in the predator’s meat. Going up the food chain, the biggest fish will contain the most nasty stuff.
Most states have extensive fish contaminant monitoring programs. Scientists analyze fish tissues for chemicals known to cause health problems. For example, Michigan biologists monitor fish for mercury, PCBs, chlorinated pesticides like DDT, dioxins and furans.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works with states and tribes to develop local consumption advisories. To support this effort, EPA conducts and publishes research on fish contamination. The not-so-good-news: contaminants in fish are everywhere. The EPA’s most recent National Coastal Condition Assessment rated less than one percent of coastal waters as “good” based on levels of contaminants in fish tissue. In the same study, every single sample from the Great Lakes contained detectable levels of contaminants.
Fish Consumption Advisories Can Change Over Time
Based on test results, states issue advice on amounts and types of fish that are safe to eat. These advisories are not a ban on catching or a limit on how much you can eat, just recommendations. That said, following the advice is a really good idea. PCBs and mercury are common causes for advisories.
There is also good news. Advisories can be lifted or eased. For example, Maryland eased an advisory for Chesapeake Bay striped bass, raising the recommended meal limits for the general population for smaller striped bass from two per month to three per month. Another big boost came when chlordane was banned in the United States in 1988. By 2011, there were no new fish consumption advisories issued for the contaminant.
Check for Advisories and Then Dig In
State and local agencies publicize fish advisories in a variety of ways including signs, websites and often hard copies. The EPA also has a searchable fish advisory map online. In addition to advisories covering where you fish, you’ll find tips and trips for avoiding contaminants.
What you don’t know can hurt you, so make sure your fish is safe to eat before firing up the grill. | Feature photo: Jay Fleming