Since 1997, Ohio has cautioned women of childbearing age and children under age 6 to limit consumption of any wild Ohio fish (from any body of water) to no more than one meal a week due to possible methyl mercury contamination. This year, that advisory was extended to all of us. (The Environmental Protection Agency defines "one meal" for an adult as 6 ounces of cooked fish or 8 ounces of uncooked fish. For a young child, the amounts are 2 ounces cooked or 3 ounces uncooked.)
But don't put your fishing rod and net on eBay just yet. According to Ray Petering, program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife, the one-meal-per-week advice was expanded to cover all persons "more for simplicity than for health reasons. It makes the advisory more streamlined, shrinks the advisory publication and makes the advisory easier for people to understand." He says that hardly anyone eats as much as 52 meals of sport-caught fish per year.
"The vast majority of wild fish [from Ohio waters] are perfectly safe to eat," adds Petering. "Generalizing that wild fish are somehow unsafe to consume is not only inaccurate, it's an injustice to the overall condition of Ohio's fisheries resources." However, he acknowledges that Lake Erie is a special case among the state's waters, with more fish advisories than any other lake in Ohio.
"For reasons yet unknown, after many years of declining contaminant levels in fish, Lake Erie seems to be experiencing a slight increase with regard to walleye and smallmouth bass," he says. "One of the most popular theories is the change in the feeding dynamics of these two species caused by the presence of zebra mussels and gobies."
In addition to mercury, small amounts of pesticides, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in lake fish also pose health risks. Recent studies conducted in the Great Lakes basin indicate that fish consumption is the primary route of exposure to PCBs and that health consequences associated with long-term consumption include possible mental and physical retardation in newborns.
As Petering stresses, the state doesn't say not to eat any lake fish at all, but it does suggest ways to lessen your risk when doing so. For instance, smaller fish within a species are generally safer than older, larger fish that have had more time to accumulate contaminants. Also, limit your intake of fish with higher fat content, such as channel catfish and carp, since fat tissue retains more contaminants; it's better to stick to leaner lake fish such as yellow perch and crappie.
Proper prep and cooking also decreases risk. Trimming away fatty areas of fish and using cooking methods that let fat drip away will reduce exposure to PCBs (but not to mercury, which binds to the actual meat of the fish).
Ohio's fish advisory can be found at http://web.epa.state.oh.us/dsw/fishadvisory/.
Fortunately, if your summer isn't complete without baked walleye or fried perch, but you're concerned about lake pollutants, farm-raised fish (which can be found at some restaurants and grocery stores; be sure to ask) provides an alternative to sport fish.