New fish consumption guide released

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Community Health recently released new fish consumption guidelines for specific species and water bodies that many believe more accurately reflect the health risks of ingesting certain toxic chemicals in fish.

The new Eat Safe Fish Guide, formally known as the Michigan Fish Advisory, provides the public with information about risks associated with chemicals found in Michigan’s popular sport fish, with specific consumption recommendations for different species and local waterways for those who eat fish regularly.

The updated guide shifts from what was formerly a two-tier system – with one set of recommendations for males over 15 years old and woman over 45, and another for children under 15 and woman of child-bearing age – to a simpler system for everyone, using portion sizes based on body weight. MDCH and Department of Environmental Quality officials test the fillets of harvestable-size fish from many Michigan lakes and rivers for chemicals each year to set the guidelines.

MDCH officials spent the last three years reviewing the latest scientific literature to develop new consumption threshold levels for mercury, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – the most common chemicals found in Michigan fish. They also improved their outreach plan for communicating the potential health risks associated with ingesting the chemicals, which include possible liver damage, birth defects, and other serious medical issues.

The new approach allows users to take into account how they prepare their catch, implements a new “limited” consumption category that replaces many “do not eat” warnings, and breaks down the previously voluminous fish advisory into smaller, more accessible regional guides.

“The old methodology was very unique, a blend of risk management and judgment calls by managers …,” MDCH toxicologist Kory Groetsch told Michigan Outdoor News. “The (new) method that’s used to determine what’s safe for everyone … is built around a process called risk assessment” – the same process used to test drinking water, soil contamination, air quality, and similar measures.

“It’s now based on a serving size relative to their body weight,” Groetsch said. “We came up with an amount that if you follow the guidelines, your exposure is absolutely minimal.”

Overall, about one-third of the recommendations are now more restrictive, one-third less restrictive, and one-third the same as the previous guidelines. The guide, however, now comes with instructions on the best methods for cleaning and cooking fish, which allows for higher consumption levels if implemented, Groetsch said.

“It was basically assumed everyone would trim away the fat and cook it over a grill so the fat would drip away” under the old guidelines, he said. With the new system, “if you follow the trimming and cooking advice, you can double the guideline.”

Groetsch stressed that exposure to limited amounts of chemicals found in Michigan fish is safe for anyone, including pregnant women. The guidelines, he said, are geared toward residents who regularly eat Michigan fish over numerous years. He said MDCH officials did not note any significant new contamination issues in the state’s fish from the past year.

Jay Wesley, DNR Lake Michigan Basin coordinator, said he believes the new guide better reflects the minimal health risks of eating Michigan fish, is easier to understand, and gives residents more options for minimizing their risk.

“It sets it up better for anglers and people who eat fish to better assess what they can eat and how much,” Wesley said, noting that contamination levels across most of the state are declining. “It kind of gives the person eating the fish more choices.”

In the past, restrictive recommendations conflicted with harvest size limits in DNR fishing regulations, but Wesley said those issues have been largely resolved, with the exception of “do not eat” warnings for harvestable fish on the Kalamazoo River, downstream of Morrow Dam.

Dennis Eade, Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association executive director, called the new guide “a big step in the right direction.”

“Warnings in the past made the department look critical … and didn’t accurately communicate the risk. People should not be afraid to eat the fish that come from our lakes and streams,” Eade said, adding that Michigan Steelheaders, other fishing groups, and members of the state’s tourism industry met with DNR officials earlier this year to discuss concerns with the Michigan Fish Advisory.

“We wanted to ensure (MDCH officials) are not scaring the public beyond a reasonable level of caution,” he said. “I am very pleased with the publication they put out. They are much more understandable.”

Annette Rummel, with the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, also praised the Eat Safe Fish Guide.

“It is very important for the travel industry that we have good, clear, understandable information that we can provide to the traveling public, especially people who might not live in the area and are here just for the purpose of fishing,” Rummel said. “We don’t want to frighten them away, because many of the fish that are in the Great Lakes can be consumed without any concern at all.

“I really sincerely appreciate the approach being used by the Department of Community Health now, and I believe the presentation of the material makes it much easier for people to understand which fish that they can consume and which fish they should limit consumption of,” she added.

The Eat Safe Fish Guide is available at www.michigan.gov/eatsafefish

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