Background Information

Table of Contents

Why We Have Advisories

Fishing is fun and fish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish contain high quality protein, essential nutrients, healthy fish oils, and are low in saturated fat. However, some fish contain chemicals at levels that may be harmful to health.

To help people make healthier choices about which fish to eat, the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) issues advice about eating sportfish (fish you catch). People can get the health benefits of fish and reduce their exposures to chemicals, or contaminants, by following the NYS DOH advice. The advisories tell people which fish to avoid and how to reduce their exposures to contaminants in the fish they do eat.

Fish from fresh waters are more likely to be contaminated than fish from remote marine waters because many fresh waters are close to human activities and contamination sources. Anglers (and others who eat fish caught by friends and family) often eat fish from a limited set of waters because they tend to return to favorite fishing locations. When those fishing locations contain fish with higher contaminant levels, the people who eat them will have higher contaminant exposures.

NYS DOH also issues advice about game, such as snapping turtles and wild waterfowl. Game may also contain chemicals at levels of concern.

Fish from Stores and Restaurants

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the sale of commercial fish in markets. Due to concerns about mercury, FDA advises pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. As part of a healthy diet, FDA recommends that women who may become pregnant and nursing mothers eat up to 12 ounces per week of a variety of other kinds of fish and follow the same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to their young children, but serve smaller portions.

Unlike anglers, people who get their fish from the market or restaurants are likely to eat fish from a variety of sources and locations. Also, for most contaminants, commercial fish have concentrations generally lower than are found in many New York State sportfish.

The full FDA advisory includes answers to frequently asked questions about mercury in fish and shellfish. For further information about the risks of mercury in fish and shellfish, call the FDA at (888) 723-3366.

Health Risks from Contaminants in Fish and Game

The primary contaminants of concern in New York State fish are mercury and PCBs. Other contaminants such as cadmium, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxin and mirex are also concerns in fish from some of the State's waterbodies. These chemicals build up in your body over time. Health problems that may result from these contaminants range from small changes in health that are hard to detect to birth defects and cancer. Women who eat highly contaminated fish and become pregnant may have increased risk of having children who are slower to develop and learn. Chemicals may have a greater effect on developing organs in young children or in unborn babies. Some chemicals may be passed on in mother's milk. Women beyond their childbearing years and men face fewer health risks from contaminants than do children (see Information on Chemicals in Sportfish and Game for more information).

Types of Advisories

picture of a fish

New York is a water-rich state: 2.6 million acres of water on Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain; approximately 0.75 million acres on more than 4,000 smaller lakes; 70,000 miles of streams and rivers in 15 major watersheds; 150 tidal miles of the Hudson River estuary; and 1.1 million acres of marine waters extending three miles from shore. Many species of fish are sought by anglers in these waters. To help anglers choose which fish to keep for food, NYS DOH has two types of health advice:

1. General Advice

The general health advisory for sportfish is that people can eat up to four, one-half pound meals a month (which should be spaced out to about a meal a week) of fish from New York State fresh waters and some marine waters near the mouth of the Hudson River. If there is no specific advice for a particular waterbody, follow this general advice.

There are many fishing spots in New York, and not all locations or fish are tested. We know that some chemicals (e.g., mercury and PCBs) are commonly found in New York State fish. Fish may also contain other contaminants, particularly in heavily populated areas of the state. For these reasons, we issue this general advice to reduce the risk to people from consuming unhealthy levels of chemicals or other contaminants.

2. Specific Advice

For some waterbodies in New York, NYS DOH issues stricter advice (eat a limited amount or none at all) because contaminant levels in some fish are higher. To be more protective, NYS DOH advises that infants, children under the age of 15 and women under age 50 should not eat any fish from these waterbodies.

  • The information in this booklet will help you find where these waterbodies are located in New York State and the specific advice for what should or should not be eaten. In some cases, enough information is available to issue advisories based on the length of the fish. Older (larger) fish are often more contaminated than younger (smaller) fish.
  • There is also specific advice for certain regions. For example, some fish from the Adirondack and Catskill Mountain regions have been shown to have higher levels of mercury in their flesh than similar fish from other regions in the state.