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Most of us have heard that fish are a good source of protein and that we should incorporate fish into our diets. We have also heard that because fish can have elevated levels of contaminants, women of childbearing age and parents of small children should be aware of the risks associated with eating certain types of fish, including popular commercial species (such as swordfish and some tuna species). Taken together, these two messages can be confusing. The information in this article will help you to better understand these issues.
Benefits of Eating Fish
Fish are low in saturated fats and cholesterol, and high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Eating fish instead of meat can provide our bodies with the same amounts of essential proteins and other nutrients, while consuming fewer calories. The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat fish at least twice a week for a healthy heart. This recommendation is based on evidence that some fish (such as salmon and herring) are an especially good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the risk of heart problems. Other studies indicate that eating fish may benefit the developing child. For instance, higher fish consumption during pregnancy is associated with better performance on tests of visual memory in infants.
Concerns about Contaminants Found in Fish
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are pollutants that can be harmful to human health, particularly the developing fetus and young children. Unfortunately, mercury and PCBs are often found to accumulate in the fish that we eat.
“While contaminants may be present, this does not mean that people should completely exclude fish from their diets,” said Joseph Beaman, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s (MDE) Chemical Assessment Division. “Instead, it is important to recognize that some fish are lower in contaminants than others, and that women of childbearing age and young children should be especially careful about choosing the type of fish they eat, and the source of caught or purchased fish.”
To assist the public in choosing the right type of fish, federal and state governments test fish and provide guidance relating to levels of contaminants found in commonly consumed fish species.
Choosing the Right Type of Fish
It is generally better to eat younger and smaller fish. Large predator fish (such as largemouth bass, pike, shark, swordfish, and walleye) tend to accumulate elevated levels of mercury, whereas large bottom feeders (such as catfish and carp) tend to accumulate relatively high levels of PCBs. It is also important to be familiar with the fish consumption recommendations provided by state and federal agencies.
The purpose of these recommendations is to direct fishermen and their families toward fish species and locations that are low in contaminants, while making them aware of places and species to be avoided. When preparing and cooking fish, it is important to follow proper techniques that will help decrease exposure to PCBs (see table at bottom of page for details).
Due to elevated mercury levels, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration advise that women and small children avoid consuming shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Instead, they should eat 12 ounces per week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury include store-bought catfish, canned light tuna, pollock, salmon, and shrimp.
On the state level, MDE monitors Maryland’s recreational fish and issues fish consumption recommendations for specific fish species from specific locations. The statewide fish consumption guidelines, issued and updated by MDE, are a valuable tool intended to help everyone who enjoys catching and consuming Maryland fish to make the right decisions about incorporating locally caught fish into a family’s diet.
Recently Released Recommendations
With the start of the new fishing season, MDE has just updated its fish consumption information. Based on data collected recently from Maryland waters, new recommendations were issued for:
American eel, bullhead, catfish, and sunfish in the Anacostia River and its Northeast and Northwest Branches
Bullhead in the South River
Trout and walleye in selected streams and lakes
Click here for complete information about the updated Maryland fish consumption recommendations or call MDE at (410) 537-3906.
Click here for national fish consumption advisory information.
Take Home Points About Healthy Fish Consumption:
- Follow MDE meal guidelines – you can find these online (www.mde.state.md.us/fishadvisory/) or by calling 410-537-3906
- Eat smaller fish
- Mix the types of fish you eat
- Avoid eating crab “mustard”
- To avoid germs, wash your hands before and after handling fish and seafood
- Fish with obvious wounds, sores, or that are visibly unhealthy should not be taken for consumption. Also, fish that do not smell or taste fresh should not be eaten.
- To decrease your exposure to PCB’s follow these steps (Note: these steps do not reduce mercury):
- Eat only the fillet portion of the fish - cut off skin and fat
- Bake, grill, or broil your fish on a rack letting the fat drip off
- Do not batter or bread fish before cooking