FAQ – Are Fish Safe to Eat from Lake Erie?

– I love fishing in Lake Erie. There are so many amazing species I typically catch! But I wonder how many types of fish are actually in the lake…

Lake Erie has 52 different fish species, according to the Ohio Lake Erie Shoreline Fish Community Survey performed by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, University of Toledo, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (https://www.utoledo.edu/nsm/lec/pdfs/Lake%20Erie%20species%20list-1.pdf).


Figure: List of fish within Lake Erie, according to the Ohio Lake Erie Shoreline Fish Community Survey


– So, what fish are safe to eat from Lake Erie?

Well, it depends. According to the New York State Department of Health, there are limitations on what fish you can eat based on your age and gender. These categories are divided into two sections: “men over 15 and women over 50” and “women under 50 and children under 15”( https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/2792.pdf). Depending on what category you fall into, you should or should not eat certain types of fish.



Figure: This helpful infographic shows what fish are and are not edible from Lake Erie 

The predominant reason you should not eat fish out of this lake, according to the New York State Department of Health, is that there are a number of toxic chemicals that can bioaccumulate, or, in other words, become fused with the meat in certain fish species based on their diet (https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/2792.pdf). Many of these chemicals are specifically harmful to the female reproductive system and can be very harmful to individuals who are pregnant. In the case of PCBs, they can cause “developmental disorders and cognitive deficits” in children (http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Toxins_LakeErie.pdf).


– What are PCBs?

PCBs, or Polychlorinated Biphenyls, “are a group of man-made organic chlorinated hydrocarbons” that were seen in industrial practices around the early to late 1900s (http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Toxins_LakeErie.pdf). According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “PCBs have been used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment because they don’t burn easily and are good insulators” (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=140&tid=26). They have since been banned due to their highly toxic nature. However, as a result of them being dumped into Lake Erie, they are still causing issues for people’s health, especially those that eat more than the recommended amount of fish from Lake Erie.

PCBs are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and skin conditions (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=140&tid=26). These effects are primarily seen in individuals that eat high amounts of sport fish that have bioaccumulated the chemical in their system from eating other smaller fish that have accumulated it in theirs.


– So, what caused these restrictions in the first place? Were there factories that dumped this chemical into the water?

According to Adefunke Adedipe’s “Toxins in Lake Erie” paper, around 5,000 chemicals had been introduced to Lake Erie “under the unfortunate assumption that water dilutes any substance” from many different factories around the 1800’s (http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Toxins_LakeErie.pdf). Some of these chemicals were PCBs. As there was little research being performed during this time on the chemicals that are now seen in Lake Erie, thousands of pounds of them were dumped into the lake until the 1970s, when health effects from eating sport fish were beginning to be paid attention to (http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Toxins_LakeErie.pdf). After these health effects began to be seen in the general population, research began in order to determine where the effects were coming from. For PCBs, it was determined that individuals who ate a large amount of sport fish from the lake were more likely to develop health effects as a result (http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Toxins_LakeErie.pdf). As such, regulations were set in place in order to help prevent individuals from experiencing these health effects.


– Will time allow these chemicals to disappear from the lake?

Depending on where the PCBs are, they can take a long or short time to break down in the environment. In Lake Erie, the majority of PCBs are found on the bottom in the soil. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry,

“PCBs stick strongly to soil and will not usually be carried deep into the soil with rainwater. They do not readily break down in soil and may stay in the soil for months or years; generally, the more chlorine atoms that the PCBs contain, the more slowly they break down” (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=139&tid=26).

As such, it can take a very long time for these chemicals to break down in Lake Erie, especially since they are not exposed to weathering element or sunlight that would naturally break them down.


– Is there any way we can make the fish safe to eat again?

There is no specific way that the current fish in Lake Erie can become safe to eat again, as they have already accumulated these chemicals in their bodies. However, cleanups of these chemicals can help reduce the amount of PCBs in the environment. While this may be difficult to perform on such a large lake, it is possible. Though, it would take a very long time to clean up and even more money to do so. The typical way to remove PCBs from a water body is to dredge the bottom and remove the substrate (sand, soil, etc.) to large containers that are sent to a processing plant that will help remove the PCBs (https://www3.epa.gov/hudson/cleanup.html). The Hudson River cleanup, which spanned 200 miles of the water body, took six years to complete. Those six years were spent dredging the bottom of the river and removing the substrate. Now, in 2016, the removal of the PCBs from the substrate is underway. In comparison, Lake Erie spans almost 10,000 square miles.


Figure: Lake Erie as seen from one of NASA’s satellites


– Why should we improve fish quality?

Currently, there is a large refugee population that lives around Lake Erie that rely on these fish to survive. There are also many low-income families that need these fish to feed themselves. To have these fish polluted with such chemicals causes health concerns for the people who cannot afford to pay for meat at the grocery store. If these individuals get sick as a result of having little to no money because they subsist on these fish, they cannot receive health coverage. They also may not have enough money to pay for a fishing license, which puts them at risk of receiving a ticket that they also cannot pay. As such, there is a large environmental justice concern surrounding these people and the current poor quality of fish provided to them. There is also a major loss in terms of sense-of-place for people who used to eat these fish on a relatively frequent basis that can no longer do so.

To have the lakes change so drastically from 40 to 50 years ago changes the overall mentality surrounding Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. This, of course, is in reference to older generations that used to use the lakes as a source of sustenance and can no longer do so due to the restrictions set in place as well as the overall change in the fisheries themselves.


– What regulations are in place to help bring the fisheries back?

The DEC has a catch limit in place for fish within Lake Erie and there are specific times when you can catch fish and keep them. These typically follow the seasons when they are and are not spawning.  The catch limit is daily, meaning that each person can only bring a certain number of fish back per day. This ensures that the fishery is not overharvested.

Another regulation is now in place to help protect fish habitats. This regulation was also set in place by the DEC to help prevent aquatic invasive species spread into New York State waterways. It states that individuals must clean, drain, and dry their boat before placing it into a new water body. By having people remove aquatic invasive species from their boats before entering a new waterway, fish habitats can be protected from things such as zebra mussels and aquatic invasive plant species.


– What would restocking fish into the system do?

Restocking would certainly allow new fish to enter the system that would be edible if they were raised safely in a fish hatchery before being placed in the lakes. However, if they ate fish that were already in the water body to begin with that had already bioaccumulated these chemicals, then the cycle would essentially repeat and that fish would no longer be entirely safe for consumption.


– What organizations are working to educate the public about this issue?

There are a number of organizations that are currently working to educate individuals about the safety of eating fish out of Lake Erie. The New York State Department of Health is one such organization that is working towards protecting individuals that wish to consume fish taken out of the two lakes. For more advice provided by this organization about fish eating, please refer to their guide: https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/2792.pdf.

Another organization that is educating the public about fish consumption is Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. They are also looking into the environmental justice aspects associated with eating fish from Lake Erie. For more information, please visit their website: http://bnriverkeeper.org/can-i-eat-the-fish/.

Outside of New York State, there are organizations in both Ohio and Michigan that are working to educate their public about consumption of fish from Lake Erie. These include the Ohio Department of Health, Natural Resources, and Environmental Protection Agency (pamphlet found here: http://www.epa.state.oh.us/portals/35/fishadvisory/fishadvisory_pamphlet.pdf) as well as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (pamphlet found here: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdch/MDCH_EAT_SAFE_FISH_GUIDE_-_SOUTHEAST_MI_WEB_455358_7.pdf).