Mercury in Fish
Fish sampled in four Alaskan national parks have tested positive for mercury and in some cases exceeded State of Alaska unlimited human consumption thresholds for women and children. The testing was part of a multi-year U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service study of fish in remote, high elevation lakes and streams in 21 national parks across 10 western states and Alaska. Mercury was found in all fish sampled though levels of the chemical harmful to fish, other wildlife and humans, varied.
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Mercury in Fish from Copper, Tanada, and Summit Lakes
Information from the National Park Service, Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services – Division of Public Health, and Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Why are we concerned about mercury?
Mercury is a neurotoxin - at high levels it can damage the developing brains of babies (including unborn babies) and children.
Should I worry about eating fish?
Overall, mercury levels in Alaska fish are low, so the only people who need to think about limiting the amount of fish they eat are women who are or can become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children age 12 years and under. Women and children can still get the benefits of eating fish by choosing to eat fish that are low in mercury, like salmon.
Men, elders, and teenage boys may enjoy unrestricted amounts of most Alaska fish, including lake trout.
The State of Alaska has developed guidelines for women and children on how much of each fish they can safely eat, based on the amount of mercury in a variety of fish species. These guidelines:
There is more of the toxic form of mercury – methylmercury – in fish that eat other fish and in older fish, like large lake trout. A recent study measured mercury in muscle from lake trout, kokanee, and grayling caught in Copper Lake; from lake trout caught in Tanada Lake; and from rainbow trout caught in Summit Lake (Tebay R. Drainage).
Results indicate the kokanee, rainbow trout, and most of the grayling are safe to eat in unlimited quantities. However, all of the lake trout and some of the grayling exceeded thresholds recommended by the State of Alaska for unlimited human consumption by women and children. The figure to the right shows how lake trout and grayling fit in to the State consumption guidelines.
Guidelines from the State of Alaska indicate that all five species of Alaska salmon have very low contaminant levels and are safe to eat in unlimited quantities.
Where does mercury in Alaska come from?
The most recent (2007) guidelines, Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans: A Risk Management Strategy to Optimize Public Health, is available at: http://www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/bulletins/docs/rr2007_04.pdf.
Lake trout smaller and larger than the size ranges shown above were not tested. It is likely that fish larger than the sizes listed above may contain higher levels of Mercury. It is recommended that as the size of the lake trout increases, the frequency of consumption be decreased. The majority of the grayling tested were safe to eat in unlimited quantities, however, some were found to exceed the 0.15 mg/kg threshold. A "meal" is one six-ounce portion of fish.
When Deciding What to Eat, Remember…
Subsistence foods, including almost all fish, are better for you than store-bought foods. Fish are nutritious, with vitamins A, E, and C, iron, zinc, protein, and very important omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients help keep your nervous system, your immune system, and your heart healthy, and are important for a healthy pregnancy. Subsistence foods are low in sugar and saturated fats. Store-bought foods can have unhealthy amounts of sugars and fats, which can contribute to obesity and diabetes, and heart disease.
For more information on fish consumption guidelines, or the benefits of eating subsistence foods, contact the Environmental Public Health Program, 907-269-8000, Alaska Division of Public Health, 3601 C Street, Suite 540, Anchorage, AK 99503.
For more information on mercury in lake trout contact Molly McCormick, (Molly_McCormick@nps.gov, 907-822-7280), Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Mile106.8 Richardson Hwy., Copper Center, AK 99573.
Did You Know?
Central Alaska has only 2 amphibians, the wood frog and boreal toad, which survive the winter in frozen mud and hops out in the spring ready to breed.