The benefits and risks of eating wild fish from Adirondack waters

The benefits and risks of eating wild fish from Adirondack waters

Health commissioner visits Lake Placid to advocate for safe wild fish consumption

By Mike Lynch

The head of the state Department of Health visited Lake Placid Thursday to promote the best practices for eating wild fish caught in Adirondack waters.

Health Commissioner James McDonald said fish consumption is safe, but warned: “If you eat too many fish over a lifetime, then you might absorb chemicals that accumulate. That could cause problems.”

McDonald, a doctor, and several members of his staff were filming videos at the Lake Placid public boat launch to promote its advisory in the Adirondacks, where many fish are known to contain mercury.

“Fish are safe to eat. Fish are very healthy food and we want people to eat fish. It’s a really good source of protein,” McDonald said. “Most people in their usual diet in our country aren’t going to eat this many fish in a week. But we put the advisory out so people know what’s the upper limit of what I can do.”

Related reading: Health department releases updated guidelines on eating Adirondack fish

The recommendations are geared towards two populations. One is the general population. The other is the sensitive population, which includes women under 50 because of their potential to get pregnant and children under 15. 

The advisory is mostly geared toward the sensitive population, according to the DOH. It advises them to avoid eating more than one meal (eight ounces) a month from its “best choice fish” list that includes yellow perch, brook trout, bullheads and several other species. It advises against eating more high risk species at all. This group includes lake trout, bass and walleye. 

Eating too many fish with mercury can lead to developmental problems for children, and that is considered the greatest risk. However, people in the general population can accumulate too many contaminants over time and also suffer ailments. 

The recommendations for the general populations are still restrictive and range between one and four meals per month except for walleye over 19 inches. DOH says people shouldn’t eat those fish. 

McDonald said anglers and others who intend to eat fish should visit the DOH’s website to read the full advisory

A chart with advice for people who want to eat fish they catch in the Adirondacks. Illustration courtesy of DOH

To get a better understanding of the advisory, we posed some written questions to the DOH. Below are answers from their team headed by McDonald. 

Why is there an advisory for eating fish in the Adirondacks?

The Adirondacks boast some of the most stunning scenery and unequaled fishing access in New York State. Fishing is a fun, healthy activity for the whole family, and fish are a great choice for a healthy diet. However, waters within the Adirondack Region have been more affected by mercury than other parts of the state. Our goal is to help people make healthier choices about which fish to eat and which to avoid.

In 2022, the department updated the Adirondack regional advice allowing all family members to eat fish from every Adirondack Park water, a major pivot from previous advice that restricted women and children from eating any fish from a water with a specific advisory.  Prior to 2022, the department issued 66 different advisories for waters in the region for similar fish. In 2022 this was streamlined to 16.

Why are children and women under 50 separated into a separate category from the general population? Why are the risks higher for them?

Sensitive populations include people who can become pregnant and children under 15 are advised to limit the kinds of sportfish they eat and how often they eat them. People who eat highly contaminated fish and game and become pregnant may have an increased risk of having children who are slower to develop and learn. Some contaminants may be passed on to infants in breastmilk. Exposure to contaminants may also have a greater effect on young children than adults.

Are there particular fish that contain more contaminants than others?

Larger predator fish tend to have higher levels of contaminants. Walleye, (greater than 19 inches) should not be eaten. We also advise people to eat less of the following: chain pickerel, lake trout, largemouth bass, rock bass, smallmouth bass, walleye (less than 19 inches), yellow perch (greater than 10 inches).

It’s well known that mercury is a problem in the Adirondacks. Are there growing concerns about “forever chemicals” such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)  and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in water and wildlife and fish?

The new statewide mercury approach to our fish advisories can also protect anglers from other potential contaminants, including PFAS and PFOS. New York continues to collect and analyze fish, monitor the literature, and issue updated PFOS advice when levels exceed the guidelines, just like any other contaminant found in NYS fish.  

Are there any other contaminants anglers should be concerned about in the Adirondacks?

Most contaminants in fish from Adirondack waters tend to be at low levels. However, mercury continues to affect the Adirondack region more than other parts of the state.

The department’s fish consumption advice is protective of eating fish for advice categories, such as “up to four meals per month” all year long. However, it’s generally a good idea to space out meals to spread out exposure to mercury over a longer period of time when possible.

We’ve gone over the risks of eating fresh fish. What are the benefits?

Fish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish contain high quality protein, essential nutrients, and healthy fish oils, and are low in saturated fat. People can get the health benefits of eating fish and reduce their exposures to contaminants by following the department’s advice.