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 (the fish you catch).

Some fresh waters and marine waters (near New York City) are impacted by human activities and local or distant contamination sources. The fish from these waters are more likely to be contaminated than fish from other waters. People who eat the fish they catch, or get locally caught fish from others, often eat fish from a limited number of favorite fishing waters or locations. When those favorite waters/locations contain fish with higher contaminant levels, the people who eat them may have higher contaminant exposures. In general, fish from the market or a restaurant come from a wider variety of locations, including waters with less contaminated fish.

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

Health Risks from Contaminants in Fish and Game

The primary contaminants of concern in New York State fish and game have been mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Other contaminants such as cadmium, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxin, mirex, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, previously known as perfluorinated chemicals or PFCs) are also concerns in fish from some of the State's waterbodies. These contaminants build up in your body as you continue to eat these fish and game over time. Health problems that may result from exposure to these contaminants range from small changes in health that are hard to detect to birth defects, reproductive and developmental effects, and cancer. For more detailed information about contaminants in fish and game please visit About Chemicals & Bacteria in Fish.

Women 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 mother’s milk. Exposure to contaminants may also have a greater effect on young children than adults.

People can get the health benefits of eating fish and reduce their exposures to contaminants by following the NYS DOH advice. The advisories tell people which fish to avoid eating, and how to prepare and cook fish to reduce their exposures to contaminants in the fish they do eat. Women of childbearing age (under 50) and children under 15 are advised to limit the kinds of sportfish they eat and how often they eat them. Women beyond their childbearing years (over 50) and men may face fewer health risks from some chemicals. For that reason, the advice for women over age 50 and men over age 15 allows them to eat more kinds of sportfish and more often.

Basis for Setting Advisories

New York is a water-rich state: 2.6 million acres of water in Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain; approximately 0.75 million acres in 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 in these waters are sought by anglers.

In New York State, fish and game advisories are primarily based on information that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) gathers on contaminant levels in fish and game. NYS DEC collects fish samples each year from different waterbodies. It varies from year to year, but NYS DEC annually collects and analyzes contaminants in about 1,500 fish from more than 50 locations/waters. Sampling focuses on waterbodies with known or suspected contamination, waterbodies susceptible to mercury contamination, popular fishing waters, and waters where trends in fish contamination are being monitored. Also, testing focuses on those species that are most likely to be caught and eaten by sport anglers. NYS DEC also tests some game species (e.g., waterfowl and snapping turtles) that accumulate chemical contaminants. NYS DOH reviews the NYS DEC testing results for fish and game to determine if an advisory should be issued or revised for a given waterbody, or for a particular species of fish or game. See Fish and Game Advisory Derivation below for more details.

Types of Advisories

To reduce exposure to contaminants, and help anglers and hunters choose which fish and game to keep for food, NYS DOH has the following types of health advice:

1. General Advice for Sportfish

picture of a fish

The general health advisory for sportfish consumption is that people can eat up to four, one-half pound meals a month of fish (which should be spaced out to about a meal a week) 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 waterbody, NYS DOH recommends following this general advice because:

  • some chemicals are commonly found in New York State fish (e.g., mercury and PCBs);
  • fish from all waters have not been tested; and
  • fish may contain unidentified contaminants.

2. Specific Advice for Sportfish

For some waterbodies in New York, NYS DOH issues advice that is more restrictive (i.e., eat up to one meal per month or don’t eat) than the general advice (eat up to four meals per month) for men over 15 and for women over age 50 because contaminant levels in some fish are higher. Waters that have specific advisories have at least one species of fish with an elevated contaminant level, which means that other fish species may also be affected. In nearly all cases, if a waterbody has any specific advice, NYS DOH, to be more protective, has advised that women under age 50 and children under age 15 should not eat any fish from that waterbody. The specific advice for a waterbody also applies to tributaries and connected waters if there are no dams, falls, or other barriers to stop the fish from moving upstream or downstream. This is because chemicals remain in fish when they move from one waterbody or location to another.

The information on our website (www.health.ny.gov/fish) will help you find which waterbodies in New York State have specific advisories, where they are located, and what that specific advice is. Our website also lists public access waters with the general advice; where the whole family can eat up to four meals per month.

3. Regional Advice for Sportfish

Regional advisories are issued because of regional patterns for a specific contaminant across the state (i.e., mercury) for several species that can be reasonably anticipated to apply to most or all waters in the region including those that have not been sampled. NYS DEC data indicate that certain fish from Adirondack and Catskill region waters often have mercury levels approaching or exceeding levels of concern, generally higher than mercury levels in the same species from other regions in the State. With the regional advisories, NYS DOH seeks to simplify the advisory message and issue protective advice for those at greatest risk, reducing the need for waterbody-specific advice. The regional advisories also provide women under age 50 and children under age 15 opportunities to eat some fish from Adirondack and Catskill waters by providing a list of less-contaminated species.

4. Game Advice

Game may also contain contaminants at levels of concern. NYS DOH issues advice about choosing and preparing game to eat, such as snapping turtles and wild waterfowl. For more information about eating game please visit Advice on Eating Game.

Fish and Game Advisory Derivation

NYS DOH uses a risk management approach when deriving fish and game consumption advisories. Various factors are considered when reviewing fish or game information for a specific waterbody, area, or region. These factors include but are not limited to the following:

  1. A quantitative health risk assessment, based on toxicity values (e.g., from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) toxicity database) and representative fish consumption rates, is used to evaluate risks. Average contaminant levels in the fish are typically compared to contaminant-specific guidelines or standards (including US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) marketplace standards as available1). See Table 1 below for NYS DOH numerical guidelines for fish consumption advisory derivation for nearly all New York State waters. Note that these guidelines are updated when new information becomes available and as emerging contaminants are assessed.
  2. Table 1. NYS DOH Fish Consumption Numerical Guidelines in parts per million (ppm) for Men Over 15 & Women Over 502, 3

    Contaminant Concentration range for 4 meals/month (General advisory) Concentration range for 1 meal/month advisory Concentration range for DON’T EAT advisory
    Mercury <1 ppm ≥1 ppm and <2 ppm ≥2 ppm
    Cadmium <1 ppm ≥1 ppm and <2 ppm ≥2 ppm
    Total PCBs <1ppm ≥1 ppm and <2 ppm ≥2 ppm
    Total chlordane <0.3 ppm ≥0.3 ppm and <0.9 ppm ≥0.9 ppm
    Total DDT <5 ppm ≥5 ppm and <15 ppm ≥15 ppm
    Total mirex <0.1 ppm ≥0.1 ppm and <0.3 ppm ≥0.3 ppm
    Dioxin (total 2,3,7,8-TCDD Toxic Equivalents) <10 ppt ≥10 ppt and <30 ppt ≥30 ppt

    NYS DOH uses a modified approach when evaluating contamination in fish from some waters, for example, Lake Erie and Owasco Lake. This approach allows for limited consumption of some fish by women under 50 and children under 15, even though restrictive advisories apply to these waters (See Table 2). It is based on the substantial amount of data available for a variety of species showing low levels of contamination and is in recognition of these lakes’ very large, productive fisheries. The guidelines in this approach are also used for eating some fish species from most marine waters.

    Table 2. NYS DOH Fish Consumption Numerical Guidelines in ppm for Lake Erie and Marine Waters for PCBs

    PCB concentration range (ppm) Advisory
    Men over 15 & women over 50 Women under 50 & children under 15
    <0.19 ppm Eat up to 4 meals per month Eat up to 4 meals per month
    ≥0.19 ppm - <0.9 ppm Eat up to 4 meals per month Eat up to 1 meals per month
    ≥0.9 ppm - <1.9 ppm Eat up to 1 meals per month Don’t eat
    ≥1.9 ppm Don’t eat Don’t eat

  3. Data characteristics (such as number and type of samples, species, age, length, percent lipid, sample location, etc.) are evaluated to determine whether the data are adequate to represent contaminant levels in the fish and game population of interest. For example:
    1. Because of specific characteristics (e.g., fat content, food chain position, etc.), certain fish species tend to accumulate higher levels of chemical contaminants than other fish species. It is common for different fish species from the same waterbody to have 10-fold differences in contaminant levels. By issuing species-specific advisories, NYS DOH helps anglers identify which fish species are better choices to eat. (Note: for some waters, fish contaminant levels are so high and the contamination is so pervasive that NYS DOH recommends avoiding eating all species.)
    2. For most contaminants, larger (older) fish are more contaminated than smaller (younger) fish of the same species. In some cases, enough information is available to issue advisories based on the length of the fish to identify better choices to eat.
  4. Temporal and spatial patterns are considered when characterizing fish contaminant levels.
  5. Populations at greater potential risk are considered, recognizing that health risks may be greater for women of childbearing age, infants, and young children than for the general population. Many chemicals that accumulate in fish and game may have a greater effect on developing organs in a young child and in a developing fetus than in an adult. Some of these chemicals also build up in women’s bodies and can be passed on to infants in mother’s milk.
  6. The balance between the benefits of fishing and fish consumption versus risks of contaminant exposure are considered, bearing in mind that this balance may be different for at-risk populations versus the general population.
  7. Creating advice that is appropriate, concise, and easy to understand and remember is an important factor. For example: NYS DOH uses three basic meal categories (4 meals/month, 1 meal/month, and DON’T EAT); and a meal size of one-half pound. By stating the assumed meal size, NYS DOH gives people the option to adjust their fish consumption accordingly (e.g., they could eat 2 one-quarter pound meals instead of 1 one-half pound meal when following an advisory).
  8. Consideration is also given as to whether a water will be undergoing a change that may affect fish contaminant levels, such as sediment dredging or other contaminated-site remediation.

1  The US FDA marketplace standards are based on: potential health risks vs. potential economic losses to the marketplace.

2  Guidelines used for all fresh waters except Lake Erie (see Table 2), Owasco Lake, and some marine waters near the mouth of the Hudson River.

3  Advice for women under 50 and children under 15 is DON’T EAT any fish of any species from waters with a specific advisory (1 meal/month or DON’T EAT advisory for any fish species for men over 15 and women over age 50).