Let’s compliment the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the large, bold-faced “Choose Wisely” headline on the state’s fish-eating guidelines.
Just below the headline you’ll find the actual title of the 32-page booklet (https://widnr.widen.net/s/cprtrnbhdr/fh824). It reads, “A Health Guide for Eating Fish in Wisconsin.”
The DNR and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services have been issuing fish-consumption advisories since 1976 and updated their current guidelines in January. The “Choose Wisely” headline indicates the state is trying not to panic us, the piscatorial public, by sharing what it finds when testing fish for contaminants each year.
If our agencies have learned one thing about issuing fish-eating advisories the past 47 years, it’s that few people read them — carefully, objectively or otherwise. More often, folks see a short article or hear a brief newscast about a fish advisory, and simply think: “Don’t eat fish!”
Then they share their faulty interpretation with friends or loved ones and hear: “Stupid DNR! Why are they always scaring people?”
First, they’re not trying to scare you. Second, if the DNR and DHS didn’t regularly test the state’s fish and share the results we’d accuse them of not caring about our kids, ourselves Grandpa and Grandma.
Sigh. Serving the public is thankless work.
And yet the DNR and DHS try. On page 1 of the current fish-eating guide, the agencies explain its purpose: “This booklet will help you plan how much fish you can safely eat. This information is not intended to discourage you from eating fish, but to help you select fish that are low in contaminants.”
And then, beneath a logo and headline that reads “Fishing for Dinner,” the text continues: “Wisconsin waters are teeming with hungry fish. Learn how to land one on your dining table for a tasty, healthy meal, harvested from waters close to home. Visit dnr.wisconsin.gov and search ‘Fishing for Dinner.’”
Yes, the DNR will teach beginners basic fishing knots, fishing tactics and fish cooking. It’s not trying to scare you off the water and away from Wisconsin’s walleyes, bluegills, crappies and yellow perch.
If you click its “Fishing for Dinner” link, you’ll learn you can fish 365 days a year in Wisconsin. As the DNR’s website says: “With over 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, and roughly 15,000 lakes, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to catch fish of many varieties.”
In addition, page 4 shares health and wellness benefits of eating Wisconsin fish, which are generally low in unhealthy saturated fat, and high in protein, vitamins and minerals.
The text continues: “Fish are a primary food source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, (which) are essential for brain and nerve functions. Modest consumption of fish containing omega- 3s may lower the risk of heart disease in adults. Many doctors suggest eating one to two meals of fish weekly for your health, but you’ll gain little additional benefit by eating more than that.
“However, fish may build up pollutants from the water they live in and the food they eat. Some pollutants can build up in fish to levels that harm those who eat fish. You can get the health benefits from eating fish while reducing unwanted contaminants by following this advisory.”
To prove it, the booklet’s first seven pages offer practical, no-fear, level-headed advice about common fish contaminants, what’s known about them, which fish get most contaminated, and how to reduce the bad stuff when cleaning and cooking fish. The booklet even shares a full page about eating fish we buy in stores and off restaurant menus. Talk about truth in advertising: When’s the last time you saw fish-contaminant warnings at a grocery counter or supper club?
One guy who didn’t know the dangers of eating ocean fish and farm-raised fish is radio shock-jock Howard Stern, who learned in 2018 that he was suffering from mercury poisoning. That was Stern’s reward for giving up red meat for a daily lunch of salmon, followed by fish dinners several nights per week.
Mercury levels in healthy adults range from zero to 9, but Stern’s was 33 when doctors tested him.
“Fish were getting back at me for eating them,” Stern joked.
His health improved when he cut back to two or three weekly fish dinners, and quit eating top-end predators like swordfish.
Likewise, Wisconsin’s fish advisories recommend that children 15 and younger, and women 50 and younger not eat shark, muskies, swordfish, tilefish or king mackerel; and that women older than 50 and men limit those fish to one monthly meal.
Stern’s mercury intake from eating too much fish wasn’t necessarily a fluke. A 69-year-old Florida man ate so much mercury-tainted fish during a two-week Alaskan cruise in February 2019 that he grew confused and forgetful after returning home.
The man, who had a history of diabetes and hypertension, was acting so strangely that his wife took him to the hospital. After tests showed he was sober and hadn’t suffered a stroke, his wife told doctors he ate halibut, lingcod, salmon and shark for nearly every meal during their cruise. Tests put his mercury level at 35, two points higher than Stern’s. He returned home after four days of treatment, and his mercury level a month later was back to 9.2, normal.
In Wisconsin, people over 50 will typically be fine if eating all the bluegills, crappies, perch, sunfish, rock bass, bullheads and inland trout they want; and if eating bass, walleyes, catfish, northern pike and all other species weekly. Meanwhile, women 50 and younger and children 15 and younger should limit themselves to one weekly serving of panfish and one monthly serving of gamefish.
For more specifics by species and waterway, Wisconsin’s fish-eating booklet provides maps and region-by-region advice on fish consumption, whether you’re worried about PCBs, PFAS, PFOS or mercury.
And if that’s not clear enough, consider my advice, which the DNR and DHS don’t endorse:
n If you smoke, you can probably ignore fish advisories. Cigarettes kill 480,000 Americans annually.
n Another 16 million smokers fight cigarette-caused ailments, including diabetes, emphysema, heart disease and erectile dysfunction.
n Also realize that if you drive or ride motorcycles, you’re 28 times more likely than car drivers or their passengers to die in a crash, based on miles traveled.
– And if you smoke and ride motorcycles, no amount of omega-3 fatty acids will probably improve your health or increase your life-expectancy.