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.
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.
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.
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.
How do I prepare fish to eat?
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.
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.
Educational Materials and Publications
A Guide to Eating Fish for Older Adults (Mercury) (PDF, 504 KB)
A brochure about safe eating guidelines for fish from Wisconsin waters and for fish bought in restaurants and stores.
What Women of Childbearing Age Should Know About Eating Fish (PDF, 600 KB)
Available in Spanish and Hmong
September 1993: Protocol for a Uniform Great Lakes Sport Fish Consumption Advisory (PDF, 193 KB)
May 2007: Addendum: A Protocol for Mercury-based Fish Consumption Advice (PDF, 184 KB)
Environmental Research Program, Final Report August 2005. Population-Based Methylmercury Exposure Assessment.
Prepared by: Lynda Knobeloch, PhD, Senior Toxicologist and Henry Anderson, MD, Chief Medical Officer, both from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
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, 655 KB)
This workbook complements the media series and provides more in-depth information and resources for those seeking additional information.
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.
Resources and Links
- "Fishing Wisconsin" Information from DNR
- Environmental Protection Agency Fish Advisory for Pregnant Women and Young Children
- Fish Consumption Advisory for Wisconsin