Choosing Which Fish to Eat

Man fishing at sunrise

Eating fish is part of a healthy diet, and has many benefits. Fish are generally low in calories and fat, high in protein, and some are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Some fish also contain chemicals that can cause harmful health effects.
 

The information below will help you choose which fish to eat to maximize the health benefits of eating fish, while reducing the risk of harmful health effects.

Visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) site to search for your county's fish advisories or learn more about fish consumption in general.

Why eat fish?

Excellent Source of Omega-3s

Some fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which support crucial brain development in babies and heart health for all.

High in Protein

Fish are an outstanding source of high-quality protein.

Low Calorie

Fish are naturally low in calories. Eating fish can help you maintain a healthy weight.

What chemicals can be found in fish?

The two most common water contaminants found in rivers, streams, and lakes in Wisconsin are PCBs and mercury. They frequently accumulate in fish. Below is more information.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

PCBs are a group of man-made compounds that were frequently used in manufacturing. People are exposed to PCBs by eating fish from contaminated waters. Because they do not break down easily, PCBs are found throughout our environment and remain in sediments near industries that manufactured or used PCBs.

Ways to reduce your exposure to PCBs from fish:

  • Avoid eating fatty fish, bottom feeding fish, and fish from contaminated waters. These fish tend to contain higher levels of PCBs.
  • Choose smaller, younger fish to eat.
  • Use the online query tool to learn about advisories before you choose where to fish.

For more information on PCBs:
Health Effects of PCBs
PCBs and the Food Chain (Diagram)
PCB information on the Lower Fox River

Mercury (Hg)

Mercury is an element that is released into the air from a variety of processes including coal burning. It can travel long distances and be deposited on soil and in lakes.

Tips on mercury in fish:

  • Mercury exists in several forms that build up in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and humans that consume food from aquatic food chains.
  • Mercury cannot be removed from the fish.
  • People are primarily exposed to mercury from eating fish or shellfish.
  • Choose fish species with low mercury levels according to state and national advisories.

For more information on mercury:
DHS Fact Sheet on Mercury
Wisconsin DNR Mercury Guidelines

How do I prepare fish to eat?

Breaded fish and french fries

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, you can reduce (not eliminate) the amount of PCBs in a fish meal by properly trimming, skinning and cooking your catch to reduce fatty tissue.  Cooking does not destroy PCBs, but heat from cooking melts some of the fat in fish and allows some of the contaminated fat to drop away. Broil, grill or bake the trimmed, skinned fish on a rack so the fat drips away. Do not use the drippings to prepare sauce or gravies.

 

Mercury accumulates throughout the fish, including the part that you eat. Therefore, trimming, skinning, and cooking do not reduce mercury levels in fish.  You can reduce your mercury intake by eating small fish, choosing fish species that have less mercury, and avoiding some species from lakes where higher concentrations of mercury have been found.

For more information on how to prepare fish and incorporate it into your diet:

 

Locally caught vs. store-bought fish

Most ocean fish you'll find at the store - species such as pollock, shrimp, and salmon - have very low levels of mercury. Some ocean fish do have high concentrations of mercury. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration - FDA and Environmental Protection Agency - EPA recommend that pregnant women and women planning to get pregnant not eat swordfish, shark, king mackerel or tilefish because these species contain high levels of mercury. FDA has found that women of childbearing age can safely consume up to 12 ounces of fish per week (two average meals per week). A Wisconsin fish fry is typically cod, haddock, or perch, which are among the safest species of fish to eat.

You have little cause for concern if you eat or buy a variety of commercial fish or eat less than one meal per week of fish. Regardless of whether the fish you eat is store-bought or caught from Wisconsin waters, monitor the amount and species of fish you are eating and follow the state's fish consumption advisory to decide which are safest.

Several Wisconsin sport fish are also commercially caught and sold. See Wisconsin’s advice for Lakes Michigan and Superior, Green Bay, and the Mississippi River if you eat purchased fish harvested from these waters. This information was provided by the Wisconsin DNR.

Fish Consumption Advisories

For Wisconsin-specific fish advisories, visit the Wisconsin DNR online query tool to find advisories for your areas.

For advisories on store-bought or restaurant fish, check with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

Educational Materials and  Advisory Protocols

Educational Materials for Families

A Family Guide to Eating Fish P-44031b (PDF)
A brochure about safe eating guidelines for fish from Wisconsin waters and for fish bought in restaurants and stores.

Eating Fish for Heart Health P-45111 (PDF)
A brochure about safe eating guidelines for fish from Wisconsin waters and for fish bought in restaurants and stores.

Advice for Women of Childbearing Age and Children  P-01232 (PDF)

How Can I Include Fish in My Diet?--Meal Planning Guide P-01234 (PDF)

Recipe Suggestions for Preparing Fish P-01233 (PDF)

Information for Health Professionals

The educational media module series, "Fish Facts" can be accessed at www.fish-facts.org. The media series consists of four media modules, each about 3-5 minutes long.  It is designed for busy health professionals interested in learning more about the risks and benefits of fish consumption and methylmercury (CH3Hg) exposure.

Fish Facts Workbook (PDF)
This workbook complements the media series and provides more in-depth information and resources for those seeking additional information.

Screening Questions for Women of Childbearing Age P-01587

DHS Toxic Chemical Fact Sheet Series: PCBs

Online Continuing Medical Education Course: Healthy Fish Choices
CME course designed to enhance the care you provide to women who are pregnant and breastfeeding, women of childbearing age, and young children. The course is aimed at pediatricians, family physicians, obstetricians, and nurse midwives.

Recent Fish Consumption Projects: Results, Infographics and Publications

Associations between fish consumption and contaminant biomarkers with cardiovascular conditions among older male anglers in Wisconsin" (2016) Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

Biomonitoring Project Results - Infographic
The goal of this project was to assess the dietary habits, fishing practices, general health and amount of chemicals in older male anglers living in Wisconsin. This project included 154 anglers. Each participant completed a questionnaire and provided a hair and blood sample, which were analyzed for chemicals including mercury and PCBs.

"Comprehension of Fish Consumption Guidelines Among Older Male Anglers in Wisconsin" (2015) Journal of Community Health

"Fish consumption, levels of nutrients and contaminants, and endocrine-related health outcomes among older male anglers in Wisconsin" (2016) Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

"Levels of Nutrients in Relation to Fish Consumption among Older Male Anglers in Wisconsin" (2015) Environmental Research

"Levels of Persistent Contaminants in Relation to Fish Consumption Among Older Male Anglers in Wisconsin" (2016). Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health

Milwaukee Angler Project
The goal of this biomonitoring project is to measure the amount of chemicals in people who eat fish caught from lakes and rivers near Milwaukee. This project will also look at the dietary habits, fishing practices and general health among the project population. Anglers and Burmese refugees are the focus of this project because they often consume large quantities of fish and may be at risk for having higher levels of chemicals in their bodies. The Milwaukee area was selected because portions of the Milwaukee Estuary are designated as an “Area of Concern” (AOC) due to historical pollution of the Milwaukee River and connected waterways, as well as Lake Michigan.  Industrial, urban, and agricultural pollution have resulted contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals which pose a threat to the health of local residents, especially people who regularly eat fish caught in the AOC.

This project is funded by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the future we hope to use the results of this project to protect people from exposure to chemicals in the environment. More information about ATSDR and similar past projects can be found on the ATSDR website.

Online Survey Project Results - Infographic
The goal of this project was to assess knowledge of and adherence to Wisconsin's fish consumption advisories among older male anglers. We also wanted to better understand the dietary habits and fishing practices of this group. This project recruited 3,740 anglers. Participants completed a questionnaire about their fishing practices and dietary habits as well as their knowledge and understanding of the state's fish consumption advisories.

"Perfluoroalkyl Substances in Older Male Anglers in Wisconsin" (2016) Environmental International

South Shore Women Choose Wisely Project Results - Infographic
The goal of this project was to assess mercury levels in women of childbearing age living in northern Wisconsin. We also wanted to assess whether personalized health education could be an effective way to teach women about the risks and benefits of eating fish. Mercury levels were measured twice during this project, once at the onset of the project and a second time after women met with the study coordinator and received personalized health education.

Resources and Links

 

Back to Environmental Health Resources

 

Last Revised: September 14, 2017