Gone Fishing … but is Your Catch Safe to Eat?

Make sure the fish you’re eating is a tasty and a healthful meal.

| July 16, 2008

  • Fisherman
    Find the best spots for fishing in your state and enjoy the fishing and the fish!

  • Fisherman

Fishing is one of the best summertime activities. You’re outdoors, surrounded by nature and away from the buzzing, jostling “real” world — and then there’s the fish! Grilled, pan-seared or cooked over a campfire, that crispy skin and tender meat is a real treat and it’s even good for you … except when it’s not.

“What?” you ask, “That fish was on my line 10 minutes ago. And just before that it was finning its way through a cool, clear pond. No processing, no packaging. It doesn’t get more healthful than this!”

Why Wouldn’t It Be Safe?

In a perfect world, that’s true, and fish is generally considered one of the most healthful foods around. But it’s not the fish that’s a concern, rather what’s in the fish: chemicals such as mercuryPCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made organic chemicals found in items such as transformers, thermal insulation materials and plastics, among others), chlordane (an insecticide), dioxins (not usually intentionally produced, these heterocyclic hydrocarbons are created in the process of making other products, such as herbicides or during the bleaching process in paper production) and DDT, to name the five biggies.

While PCBs, chlordane and DDT have been banned, they’re all long-lasting chemicals that hang out in our waterways long after they’ve been introduced. And those big, top-of-the-food-chain specimens (think largemouth bass and walleye) get the worst of it. The chemicals accumulate in bottom-dwelling animals, but are passed up the food chain to fish. And when a bigger fish eats a smaller fish, the big guy just absorbs the contaminants that came with his meal. The big fish is then eaten by an even larger fish — and on and on the chain continues, until the top dogs — er, fish — ultimately end up with the highest contamination of these chemicals. Top predators may test for chemical levels a million times higher than that of their home waters.

So How Do I Know Where to Fish?

While every single state in the U.S. has dozens (and some have hundreds) of spots that are rated as impaired, the good news is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local governments have been working to clean up the waterways contaminated by these chemicals; and their efforts are paying off with waters that are progressively cleaner every year. And many lakes, rivers and coastal waters of the United States are home to fish that don’t contain dangerous levels of contamination — which means that all you need to know about what fish to eat is where to catch them.  

The best place to start is the EPA’s National List of Advisories, which includes federal, state and tribal fish advisories. You can easily search by state to find advisories for local fishing areas and find contact information for the your local authority (often a Fish & Wildlife agency, and a great way to make sure you get the most current information). Plus, you can request their brochure, Should I Eat the Fish I Catch?, which also includes tips for how to trim and cook fish to minimize health risks.

7/27/2008 6:59:46 AM

I once watched a documentary on TV way back in the late 70's or early 80's about whether fish caught in America's freshwaters were safe to eat. It was disturbing back then to learn how unhealthy most of our country's freshwater lakes and streams were, even in remote places. Imagine how they are today! However, they recommended that if you plan to eat any fish you catch, while cleaning it, examine the fish's liver. If it has dark spots on it, it probably has cancer, and is therefore not safe to eat. Online research of fish physiology will tell you what a fish's liver looks like.

7/25/2008 3:10:15 PM

I work at one of three labs in the US where we actually measure how much mercury is in the water, soils, and critters for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and have been doing so for over a decade. I do the actual measurements for many elements besides mercury as well, and I can tell you that our waterways and particularly our preserved areas are remarkably clean. We have done work for many other governmental agencies too, and we do come across areas that have been impacted by man, but for the most part our environment is actually getting cleaner. Feel free to contact me if you would like to come by the lab sometime and see what we do for yourselves.

7/23/2008 9:58:35 AM

The governmental authorities as well as any business/industry that profits from fish are doing a pretty good cover up job as to how polluted our waters and fish really are. I would not eat anything out of any fresh body of water. And I would also be very careful as to what you eat out of the ocean. It's disgusting what greedy people do... but that is the wonderful world of capitalism.


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