Most Lake Erie fish can be eaten, with
By Steve Pollick
Published March 27th, 2005
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 www.ohio.dnr.com and type
in a search for "fish consumption advisories."
That will lead you to the appropriate complete link.
In Michigan, go to www.michigan.gov/dnr, click on "fishing"
and scroll to the bottom of the page under
"related resources," where you can click on
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
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
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"
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.