Eating fish is healthy
Fish offers many health benefits. It is a good source of protein and other nutrients.
In addition, it's lower in saturated fat than beef or poultry and may protect against
heart disease. (See "Low in Calories, High in
Nutrition" for more information about the health benefits of eating fish. See the
calorie table for specific nutrient information.)
Fish is loaded with a type of fatty acid that seems to lower blood cholesterol levels,
and its oils may be linked to lowering blood pressure.
Health benefits aside, catching your own fish is both fun and economical!
But some sport-caught fish can be harmful
Certain fish are likely to be contaiminated by two different toxic chemicals: mercury
and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These are the two major contaminants in sport fish
found in Wisconsin. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal and is also emitted from
coal-burning power plants. It will persist in the environment for generations. PCBs are
synthetic oils, once widely used in industrial processes and products.
Other known fish contaminants such as toxaphene, dieldrin, DDT, and dioxin are not as
commonly found in Wisconsin fish as PCBs and mercury.
What are PCBs?
PCBs are colorless and odorless chemicals that were widely used in electrical equipment
and other industrial applications before they were banned in 1976. These man-made
chemicals are considered toxic because exposure to small doses is suspected of
contributing to a variety of health problems. PCBs do not quickly decompose into less
harmful chemicals, so they are extremely persistent in the environment.
How do these contaminants get into fish?
Water runoff and rain carry PCBs and mercury into lakes and streams. These chemicals
can build up on the bottom of rivers and lakes. Numerous bottom-dwelling animals eat these
contaminated sediment particles. These animals, in turn, serve as food for fish.
Since PCBs and mercury don't degrade, they become increasingly concentrated in the
bigger fish higher up the food chain. PCBs accumulate in the fat of these fish, and
mercury spreads throughout their bodies. This means that the bigger, older fish have
higher amounts of these toxins than smaller, younger fish.
Contaminants pose the greatest risk to certain groups of people
PCBs build up in a person's body fat too. When you eat unsafe fish, PCBs stay with you
throughout your lifetime. Mercury is also a problem because the body eliminates it only
very slowly. You can build up harmful levels of these chemicals and not even know
Medical studies indicate the risks of developmental or health problems are highest for
the developing fetus and nursing infant. A woman who has accumulated high levels of PCBs
in her body can transfer large doses of PCBs directly to her fetus while pregnant, and
later her infant can receive additional PCBs through her milk. Because they are smaller,
children can receive a higher body-dose of PCBs than adults eating the same size fish.
Therefore, if they eat any sport fish, young children (especially girls) and women of
child-bearing age should eat only those fish with the lowest levels of contaminants.
Scientists suggest that the unborn child exposed to PCBs during pregnancy may weigh
less at birth and have a smaller head. These babies can develop problems that are hard to
detect until years later; such as learning disorders and memory difficulties. Children's
developing bodies may be especially sensitive to the effects of these chemicals. Exposure
to PCBs may also cause cancer.
Mercury can damage the nervous system. Eating fish with even moderately high levels of
mercury during pregnancy might lead to a delay in children's ability to walk, talk, or
What kinds of fish are most contaminated?
It is the larger older fish, which have eaten more food, that have the highest levels
of PCBs. Lake trout can live in Lake Michigan for 10 years, so they generally contain more
PCBs than chinook salmon, which only live in the lake for 3 to 4 years. Coho salmon, which
are in the lake only two or three years, contain even lower amounts than chinook salmon.
However, the amount of PCBs in two similar sized fish of the same species, caught in the
same area of the lake, can vary greatly.
Can cleaning reduce PCB levels?
Yes, but not always enough. It is important to remember that Great Lakes fish
advisories are based on fish prepared in the following way:
- Remove all skin.
- Cut away all fat along the backbone.
- Slice off the belly fat along the bottom.
- Cut away a V-shaped wedge along the lateral line on each side of a whole fish or on the
skin side of each fillet.
Note that these preparations will not reduce the amount of mercury in a fish meal.
Mercury is distributed in a fish's muscle tissue, not the fat and skin. The only way to
reduce mercury intake is to reduce the amount of contaminated fish you eat.
Can cooking fish reduce PCB levels?
Yes. While cooking does not destroy PCBs, the heat from cooking melts the fat in the
fish, thus removing some of these contaminants. It is best to broil or bake trimmed,
skinned fish on an elevated rack so any additional fat melted out of the fish drops off.
Do not use the drippings for sauces: Dump the drippings in the garbage. If you boil or
poach your fish, discard the fish broth. Studies on smoked fish have shown that while some
oil leaves the fillets, a signficant amount of moisture also leaves, so smoking does not
substantially reduce PCB levels.
How can I find out which fish are safe to eat and which are not?
The Wisconsin Divison of Health of Health and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
release a set of guidelines every year that categorize different fish from Wisconsin
rivers and lakes (including Lake Superior and Lake Michigan) into the acceptable number of
meals per week, month, or year. You can obtain the Fish Advisory by calling or writing the
Wisconsin DNR Bureau of Fisheries Management and Habitat Protection, P.O. Box 7921,
Madison, WI 53707, (608) 266-1877. The information is also available on their
Be aware that each state has its own set of guidelines and advisories.