The key to eating fish is variation and moderation. For certain groups of people, there are other advisories in place. For example, children under the age of 6 and women who are pregnant, nursing or planning to become pregnant should avoid swordfish, shark, bluefish, striped bass and all freshwater fish caught in Rhode Island waters (except stocked trout).
The health department notes that it has found high levels of mercury in species of freshwater fish caught in rivers, ponds and lakes in Rhode Island, especially bass, pike and pickerel. Certain freshwater species may contain other contaminants as well.
Lori Pivarnik, coordinator of food safety education and research in the URI Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, pointed out that in general, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risks, but she stressed the importance of checking the health department web site for recreational fishing advisories. Consumers should differentiate between recreationally caught freshwater fish where local health advisories apply and commercially caught or farm-raised saltwater fish.
The greatest risk of exposure to mercury contamination is from recreationally caught seafood caught in polluted and/or contaminated inland and freshwater lakes and rivers. Unlike the oceans, these inland waters do not “flush” and therefore contaminants can be more likely to build up and find their way into the muscle tissue – into the fillets or steaks that are consumed. The inland species are more prone to methylmercury accumulation because of the “closed” environments. Often there is confusion associated with consumption advisories for these recreational fish and the many of the common commercially caught fish consumers find in the market.
The advisories from the state’s health department are based on recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. While the advisories target specific populations – such as pregnant or nursing women, women planning on pregnancy or young children – fish and other seafood remain an important part of most diets.
“A large volume of research over the last 20 years has shown that seafood is a critical component of the diet, and all consumers are advised to eat seafood at least twice a week as part of a healthy diet,” she said. “Fish are a low calorie, high protein food that is low in fat and saturated fats and is a natural source of B-complex vitamins, vitamins D and A, and a good source of minerals.
“The top 11 commercial fish that we eat in the United States, accounting for almost 90 percent of our fish consumption, offers very little risk of mercury contamination,” she said, noting there are over 350 species of finfish and shellfish available to consumers. “Moderation and variety are the keys to a healthy seafood diet.”
Of greater concern to Pivarnik is the risk caused by food-borne illnesses.
“What consumers need to understand is that the greatest risk from eating fish, as with all food commodities, is food-borne illness from disease-causing microorganisms that are a result of poor handling practices, such as inadequate cooking, cross-contamination, improper preparation and lack of proper temperature control,” she said. “Consumption of raw or partially cooked seafood increases this risk as proper cooking will destroy all unwanted bacteria.”
Very young children, older adults, pregnant and nursing women, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to illnesses from the consumption of raw or partially cooked seafood.
For those who enjoy recreational fishing, the bottom line may be to avoid consuming your catch and instead practice “catch and release.” For more information, visit http://www.health.ri.gov/healthyhousing/mercury/fish.php or call the Department of Health’s Contaminants in Fish Hotline at 401-222-4770.