Consumer advisories for fish and waterways

Following consumer advisories for eating fish is important to your health.

Young boy fishing along coast.

Fish is nutritious, but what is the risk?

Living in Michigan, we are surrounded by more fresh water than anywhere else in the world. In addition to the Great Lakes, we also have a multitude of inland lakes and streams.  Fishing is a pastime that many people enjoy and is an activity that has benefits beyond the sport itself. Fish is a lean source of protein and high in vital nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. However, many fish accumulate mercury or can live in water that is contaminated, and thus can transfer potentially dangerous chemicals to us when eaten. Chemicals may include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or dioxin.

How is does this relate to food safety?

When discussing food safety, we often think of whether the food will make us feel sick, causing nausea or vomiting for example. One concern with the food safety of fish is different in that the health impact of eating contaminated fish occurs over a prolonged period of time. Exposure to too much mercury can lead to brain and nerve damage, and other chemicals have been linked to cancer, diabetes and other illnesses. Therefore, advisories for pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as young children have been developed in addition to advisories for the general population.

What are the guidelines?

In general, MyPlate recommends consuming two to three servings of fish per week. How much fish and how often it is eaten, what kind of fish and where it was caught all impact advisories on eating fish. The federal government has established guidelines for women of childbearing age and young children. These guidelines divide fish into categories of “Best Choices” (2-3 servings/week), “Good Choices” (1 serving/week), and “Avoid”, all based on mercury levels.  King mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish and bigeye tuna are all on the list to avoid.

Michigan State University Extension recommends that you become informed if the fish you are eating is safe. If the fish is caught locally, there may be advisories specific to that body of water. These advisories apply to all individuals, not just women and children. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has a very good guide that can help you find out if your local waterways have been tested, and if there are any contaminants to be concerned about. This downloadable guide will allow you to select a region and includes results specific to each county. Recommendations to further reduce contaminants include cleaning away the fat on the fish, as many chemicals are stored in the fat, and then grilling or broiling fish so that any fat that was not trimmed can melt away from the fish. While this is a prevention method for some chemicals, note that mercury is stored in the muscle and therefore cannot be avoided when consuming contaminated fish.

Eating fish can be very good for heart health and nervous system development, but it is important to take precautions. It is better to find out before you eat fish what the safety recommendations are in order to prevent complications later in life. So, get informed in order to enjoy some of nature’s delicacies.

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