In the middle of summer the smaller midwestern lakes are almost like pea soup. With water temps at their peak, the algae gets so thick that you can only see a few inches into the green water.
This prompted a discussion with my son. Is it safe to eat fish you catch out of what seems to be such dirty water?
So how do you know if it is safe to eat fish you catch?
In general, you are not going to know the answer to this simply by evaluating the appearance of the body of water you are fishing. Algae presence in the water doesn’t really make the water “dirty” or dangerous in any way (with the exception of toxic blue-green algae). Muddy, algae-filled water could be safer than crystal clear water if that clear water contains chemicals or contaminants. Water clarity doesn’t tell the whole picture. The real question is “What chemicals or contaminants are in the water?”
Here are five things to consider when determining if it is safe to eat fish you catch.
1. Do your own homework.
Know if there are any advisories or warnings for your favorite bodies of water. Most states have water quality testing programs that regularly monitor at least the more popular lakes. These programs typically report their findings publicly as well. A little time on Google can help you find these reports. If a lake is found with dangerous levels of contaminants, a warning is typically given. Here’s an example from Nebraska indicating whether there are warnings related to algae or bacteria.
Many states also have programs that test for contaminants in the flesh of fish. I was able to locate this information for my state (Nebraska). Do a little digging for information from your state regarding water contaminants and how they affect fish.
2. Consider your total consumption, not just what you catch.
The recommendations are based on eating fish, regardless of the source. Fish purchased at a restaurant or grocery store should be included when evaluating your consumption. It doesn’t matter if it fish sticks from the freezer, adding a fish fillet at Long John’s, sushi, or catching a mess of crappie and filleting them up at home. You need to consider your total consumption. Even fish that are commercially available can contain small amounts of contaminants.
3. It’s about frequency.
In my state, the guidelines recommend limiting consumption only on certain fish species, avoiding some altogether, but feely enjoying many fish species without concern. But even if a fish falls into the “limited” category, the recommendation is up to 8 ounces each week. That’s still a lot of fish you get to eat!
If you hardly ever eat fish, you really don’t have much to worry about. Go ahead and enjoy a shore lunch on your annual fishing trip and bring some home for the freezer. Generally speaking, unless you eat fish at least once a week, you have nothing to worry about. (There are recommendations on some that are “not recommended” or that you should “avoid” altogether, but most in these categories aren’t freshwater fish.)
4. The smaller is safer rule.
The younger, smaller fish are generally safer since contaminates build up over time. The older and larger a fish, the more likely it has contaminants built up in it’s system. So the rule of thumb is that it is safer to eat fish of average size. The trophy fish, the ones that have lived longer than others of their species, are likely to have higher levels of contaminants in their systems.
This is another reason to catch and release the trophy fish. Let the 30+ inch walleye live and keep the 15-20 inchers for lunch (assuming their length meets local regulations).
5. Your state may be different.
Because contaminants can vary from state to state, so can the recommendations. Information for Nebraska says that crappie can be enjoyed freely, while information from North Carolina recommends not eating black crappie in a certain geographic region of the state.
Be sure to know what is and isn’t recommended for the region you are fishing.
As you might suspect, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, and young children should limit their consumption of fish.
What about you? How often do you eat fish?