Most Lake Erie fish can be eaten, with due caution
Written by Toledo Blade   
Monday, 28 March 2005 02:10
As the fishing "season" gets under way across Ohio and Michigan, especially on western Lake Erie, more than a few sport fishermen want to know:

Is it OK to eat the fish?

The question arises annually but is of special concern this spring, given the recent national attention being paid to mercury pollution and the pathways that lead to mercury contamination in fish.

The simple answer is yes, it is OK to eat the fish. But the "yes" is qualified by a host of "buts." Much depends on which species of fish you are talking about, where the fish have been caught, the size of the fish, and in some cases even the way you prepare the fish.

For full answers to these questions and concerns, fire up your computer. In Ohio go to and type in a search for "fish consumption advisories." That will lead you to the appropriate complete link.

In Michigan, go to, click on "fishing" and scroll to the bottom of the page under
"related resources," where you can click on "Michigan fish
consumption advisory."

Forty-four states, including Ohio and Michigan, generally have a blanket advisory for limited fish consumption - a meal a week - based on mercury contamination in species in all waters, including the Great Lakes.

That is because most mercury pollution falls from the sky, mainly the result of smokestack pollution from coal-fired power plants, which were the object of recent federal mercury pollution-control regulations. About a third of mercury pollution is natural, however, coming from such sources as volcanoes and forest fires.

Methylmercury, the active form that ends up in fish tissue, can have especially dangerous effects on fetuses and children. It also has a more potent impact in fresh water than salt water.

Both Ohio and Michigan health authorities advise eating no more than one meal of fish per week from any body of water in either state. It is conservative advice, to be sure, but it is based on the fact that mercury cannot be washed off fish or removed with precision cuts and cleaning because it binds to protein.

That stands in sharp contrast to consumption constraints against such contaminants as PCBs, which tend to concentrate inside the skin-layer and fatty tissue, much of which can be removed by careful filleting and even more of which can be removed by grilling, broiling, or baking fish, rather than frying it.

Another thing to consider: How much fish do you really eat in the course of a year? Do you really average one meal a week of fish from Ohio and Michigan waters? In reality few people do.

Too, don't think you are off the hook, so to say, by purchasing seafood or commercially caught freshwater fish. For years sport fishing organizations railed against the black eye given to consuming sport-caught fish because of the near-hysteria of news reports on contaminants - this while commercially caught saltwater and freshwater fish, also contaminated, were assessed by more lenient standards.

Fortunately now, the playing field has been leveled and consumption advice applies to all fish, not matter how it landed in your refrigerator or restaurant table. For example, Ohio and Michigan caution against eating any shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish from the sea because they all contain high levels of mercury.

On the other hand, commercial sea-fish that are low in mercury include shrimp, tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. White or albacore tuna carries more mercury than "light" tuna.

One of the first points the Michigan advisory makes in its discussion of mercury contamination and fish consumption is stressed in bold: "Don't stop eating fish."

The discussion continues: "[Fish] is a good source of protein and low in saturated fat. You can still get the benefits of eating fish by choosing wisely safer types of fish, safer places to catch fish, and using moderation in how much you eat ..."

As for the biggest fishing lake in Ohio and one of the best fishing lakes in the world, Lake Erie, the one-meal-a-week recommendation applies, with some exceptions. The reason for the stricter consumption advisories in the following cases, incidentally, is related not to mercury but to PCBs, another class of oft-discussed contaminants that linger long in the environment:

Channel catfish, eat none longer than 16 inches and only one meal every two months for catfish under 16 inches from Lake Erie. [In the lower Maumee River, from Waterville to the mouth, eat no catfish of any size, ever.]

One meal a month is recommended for chinook or king salmon 19 inches and longer, and all coho salmon, common carp, freshwater drum (sheepshead), lake trout, smallmouth bass, steelhead trout, white bass, whitefish and white perch. The same goes for walleye of 23 inches and longer.

However, note that walleye under 23 inches and all yellow perch are OK to eat once a week, according to recommendations. King and coho salmon and lake trout are not now stocked in the lake but occasional specimens show up, likely migrants from the other Great Lakes.

The so-called bottom line here is that the health guidelines on fish consumption are conservative and prudent. Also, there is no such a thing as a contaminant-free environment, or contaminant-free fish or game or contaminant-free commercial fish or meat.

So the risks to your health are low, the benefits are high. But only you can decide if it will be catch-and-eat or catch-and-release. Oh, and be careful on the road to and from your fishing trip. Driving is a high-risk danger.

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