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Fish consumption in the Great Lakes

Fish consumption
    in the Great Lakes

Fish | Breast milk | Fish consumption advisories
Critical contaminants | Reducing exposure

Reducing exposure to critical contaminants
In general, exposure to contaminants in fish can be reduced by:

  1. Eating pan fish rather than predator fish. Pan fish have lower concentrations of contaminants because they are lower on the food chain. This means that they have consumed less contaminated material and therefore carry lower levels of those caontaminats in their bodies.
  2. Eating smaller predator fish rather than larger predator fish. Smaller fish are generally younger and have had less time to build up contaminants.
  3. Be aware that contaminants in fish pose different risks for different ages of people, and greater risks for certain groups. Special care needs to be taken especially by women of child-bearing age, woimen who are pregnant, mothers who are currently breast-feeding, and children under 15 years of age.
  4. Choose fish from lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water that are known to have lower levels of contamination The levels of various contaminants in fish can vary greatly by the body of water from which they're caught.
  5. Spacing meals out over time. Some contaminants, like Mercury, can be eliminated by the human body.
  6. Removing as much fat as possible when cleaning and cooking fish. Organochlorine contaminants are stored in this fat. Mercury, however, is stored in the protein and so is not reduced by cooking and cleaning.
  7. Rememember that heat and cooking can reduce your exposure to PCBs and some contaminants in fish. Mercury, however, is not affected by either preparation or cooking.

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About the different types of fish
Pan fish, sport fish, and predator fish are common names for large, diverse groups of fish. These names have many different meanings for many different people.

In general, a pan fish tends to be a smaller fish that is cooked by frying in pan (as opposed to poaching or grilling, as with salmon). Typical pan fish are bluegill, pumpkinseed, small and largemouth bass, white and black crappie, even yellow perch.

Sport fish generally means any type of fish that a person can actively catch on hook and line. These fish run the spectrum from bluegill and brook trout up to bass, catfish, walleye, steelhead, salmon, lake trout, and brown trout. Many people actively fish for carp and bullhead, as well.

Predatory fish are defined as any fish species that eat any other fish. this means that almost all fish species are predatory, with the exception of carp, which eat plants. Some of the more common predatory species are walleye, northern pike, steelhead, all salmon species, as well as small and largemouth bass.

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About the fish consumption advisories
Fish Consumption Programs are well established in the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes states and provinces -- as well as many native peoples in the basin -- have extensive fish contaminant monitoring programs and issue advice to their residents about how much fish and which fish are safe to eat. This advice ranges from recommendations to not eat any of a particular size of certain species from some waterbodies, to recommending that people can eat unlimited quantities of other species and sizes. Advice from these agencies to limit consumption of fish from the Great Lakes is mainly due to levels of Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic (PBT) chemicals found in fish.

Fish consumption advice for all of the Great Lakes is communicated to the public in a variety of ways. The Candian provinces and U.S. states that border each lake publish annual or biannual information on waterbodies from which fish have been tested for contaminants and give specific consumption advice for these fish. Advisory information is also available in formats designed for particular populations such as factsheets translated into immigrant languages, low-literacy fact sheets, and brochures created to inform women of childbearing age of risks to the fetus. These booklets and brochures are available at no charge to the public and many are available on the Internet.

Advice to limit consumption of fish from inland lakes in the basin is generally based on the presence of mercury in these fish. Since mercury can be transported long distances in the atmosphere and then deposited in lakes, even fish in remote lakes far away from human activity can have mercury levels high enough to warrant consumption advice. Due to the presence of mercury in fish from virtually all inland lakes, the U.S. states and provinces in the basin each issue advice to women of childbearing age to limit consumption of fish from inland lakes.

There are many potential barriers to communication of fish consumption advice. People who fish a lot feel confident and familiar with the risks and may not be interested in hearing about the advisory or are skeptical of the concern because they have not seen any apparent effects. There may be barriers of literacy and access, such as with new immigrants. Economic barriers may exist for subsistence fishers. Cultural barriers also exist regarding choice of fish species, releasing fish, and cooking and cleaning practices.

Studies have shown, however, that having an awareness of health advisories can be successful in changing fishing and fish consumption habits. The communication programs in the Great Lakes generally target white, licensed anglers and may not be reaching other sensitive populations, such as minorities, immigrants, and women of child-bearing age. Written information -- such as regulation booklets and advisory brochures -- is circulated by the government and the fishing industry to licensed anglers, and these sources of information appear to be effective in reducing consumption of contaminated fish.

For example, Fitzgerald and coworkers (1999) found that 97 percent of the men in their study were aware of fish advisories and two-thirds of these men had reduced their fish consumption. This reduction in fish consumption was due to public health intervention strategies, such as risk communication along with the use of fish advisories. More recent efforts have been directed toward groups with less awareness of health advisories such as women of childbearing age, minorities, and other frequent fish consumers.

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