Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: Is It Safe To Eat Fish Out Of Wisconsin Lakes?

UW Health Family Medicine physician Dr. Jacqueline GerhartMadison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.


Dear Dr. Gerhart: Is it safe to eat fish out of Wisconsin lakes? I was driving past one of the local lakes yesterday and saw some trash washing up on the shore and the lake color was green.


Dear Reader: It's good to know where your food comes from. You have the best idea of where your food comes from if you choose to farm, fish or hunt your own food. However, this can be very difficult to do. So many of us try to do the next best thing - to learn more about the food we buy.

This idea has drawn much media coverage and has driven changes in our food culture. Books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, and movies like "Food, Inc.," directed by Robert Kenner, offer glimpses of the journey from "farm to table." And more and more restaurants are providing "locally sourced" foods, often with the farm name listed on the menu.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Public Health Department work hard to assure that Wisconsin residents know the health benefits and risks of local food, including the fish. But it does still take a bit of effort to stay informed about the fish you eat.

Let's go through some scenarios.

  • You go fishing and eat your fish. Two things to look out for in fish are mercury levels and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which can have bad effects on the nervous system. Big fish at the top of the food chain often have the highest PCB levels. For a lake-by-lake assessment of mercury and PCB content of different fish in Wisconsin lakes, check out the Wisconsin DNR website and read the article "Eating Your Catch."
  • You buy fish at a grocery store. If you are lucky to have a grocery store with a fresh fish selection, usually it states if the fish is fresh or frozen, farmed or wild and local or not. This can help you determine where it comes from. To determine the overall safety and the levels of mercury and PCBs in your purchased fish, visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website and read "A Family Guide to Eating Fish," and "What Women of Childbearing Age Should Know About Eating Fish."
  • You go to a fish fry. Fish has Omega-3s, which are fatty acids that help lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. They also help with overall heart health. While cod - which is common in fish frys - doesn't have as many Omega-3s as salmon, it is very rich in selenium, vitamins B6 and B12 and protein. Of course, you have to skip the breading and deep frying to make it calorie conscious. But what's the fun in that?

These examples should give you an idea of the differences in local fish. But please realize that regardless of where your fish comes from, the simple fact you are eating fish is a step toward good health.

In a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006, Harvard physicians note that the health benefits of salmon far outweigh the risks from PCBs and other toxins. They rate the health benefits to be "300 to 1,000 times greater" than the risks. But remember to be cautious if you are pregnant, because excessive amounts of fish in pregnancy can actually cause the risks to outweigh the benefits.

This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.

Date Published: 08/21/2012

News tag(s):  jacqueline l gerhart

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