Survey Finds Lack of Awareness of Local Fish Health Advisories

Sep. 27, 2009
UR undergraduate student Annalise Kjolhede and ABC intern Derrick Love interviewing a fisherman on the Genesee River

A pilot study indicates that a substantial portion of people who eat fish caught in the region’s rivers and lakes – including Lake Ontario – are not aware of state health advisories which warn against consumption of certain fish populations caught in local waterways.   

The field survey, which was conducted over the summer by the University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) in partnership with Action for a Better Community, found that over one third of the people who ate the fish they caught had not seen state advisories that recommend limiting consumption of local fish because they contain high levels of potentially harmful chemicals. And about one third of those who do know about the state advisories choose to disregard the information.

“Eating fish is an important part of good nutrition,” said Katrina Korfmacher, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and community outreach coordinator for the EHSC. “Catching local fish can provide a cheap source of protein and is culturally important for many communities. Most people know that fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that help lower cholesterol levels, reduce high blood pressure, and prevent coronary artery disease. However, people also need to understand that some fish contain chemicals that can be harmful to health.”

Depending upon the species, size, and where it was caught, fish may be contaminated with toxins such as methylmercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, and other chemicals which work their way into the region’s waters from industrial, municipal, and agricultural discharge and runoff. Fish absorb these chemicals from the water, suspended sediments, and their food and over time they accumulate in their bodies.

People who frequently consume contaminated fish may be at risk for a number of health problems, such as cancer. Many of these contaminants pose serious health risks to fetuses, babies, and children, potentially resulting in birth defects and developmental problems. In fact, the state advises that women of childbearing age and children under the age of 15 should not eat fish from Lake Ontario and connecting waters up to the first barrier impassable to fish. The state also recommends that all people limit consumption of most species of locally-caught fish to one 8 oz. meal per week. 

Information pertaining to the health risks of locally-caught fish in New York State is comprehensive and regularly updated. The state Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation conduct annual tests of fish populations and publish health advisories which indicate, by body of water, which fish to avoid or consume in limited quantities. These advisories are posted online and included in various publications including the New York Fresh Water Fishing Official Regulations Guide, which is distributed to individuals when they purchase a fishing license. Despite these efforts, anecdotal evidence and surveys conducted in other communities indicated that people may still be consuming excessive amounts of contaminated fish.  This pilot study was conducted to find out whether this is also a problem in the Rochester area.

The Rochester fish consumption assessment was designed by the EHSC with the input of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, the New York State Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Conservation, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers, New York Sea Grant, and researchers involved in similar work in other communities. The project was funded in part by a grant from the Great Lakes Protection Fund Small Grants Program, which is administered by the Great Lakes Research Consortium. 

Interview teams consisting of a University of Rochester undergraduate student and Action for a Better Community youth interns conducted surveys of community members throughout the summer at neighborhood meetings and other public settings, such as the Rochester Public Market. The teams also conducted interviews with anglers at sites such as Greece Ponds, the Charlotte Pier, the Coast Guard station in Summerville, and Irondequoit Bay. The interviews collected demographic information and asked people if they consumed locally-caught fish, with what frequency, and whether or not they were aware of the potential health risks and the advisories. In total, 301 community members were surveyed and 73 anglers were interviewed.

One out of every five of the general public respondents indicated that they eat local fish. Of that number, a third responded that they eat local fish frequently (more than once a week) and only half were aware that the state publishes health advisories. The survey of anglers found that half consumed the fish they caught and of that number almost 37 percent had not seen or heard about local health advisories. 

The data indicated that consumption patterns among some population groups may put them at a higher risk. For example, 30 percent of African American anglers said they had not seen the advisories and of those that did, more than half said it did not influence their decision whether or not to eat locally caught fish.   Results also indicated that Latino/Hispanic anglers were most likely to consume local fish in excess of the one meal per week recommended by the state. The interview data also suggests that people with lower income and education levels may consume more local fish.

The study’s authors speculate that this disconnect between the health advisories and people’s behavior is the result of several factors, including language barriers (particularly among immigrant communities), a lack of trust of the state’s guidelines, and economic necessity – some 20% of the anglers who shared their household income were at or below the poverty line. Additionally, the survey and interview data suggest that many people who read the advisories still have a difficult time understanding which fish they should be avoiding.

“We need to do a better job at getting this information to the community, especially low income and immigrant populations,” said Karyn Herman, program director for Action for a Better Community. “Fish are a healthy food source and by following a couple of simple rules of thumb people can substantially reduce health risks from contaminated fish.”

These steps include eating younger, smaller fish which generally have fewer accumulated toxicants; proper preparation including the removal of excess fat and skin and grilling, baking, or broiling the fish (as opposed to frying); and avoiding consumption of fish from water connected to Lake Ontario by women of childbearing age and children under 15 years of age. 

The Environmental Health Sciences Center plans to use the pilot study results to begin to a community-based discussion about how to better inform people about the benefits and risks of eating locally-caught fish. For example, they will explore outreach strategies beyond the use of printed material for high risk populations. These include the dissemination of information via mixed media, word of mouth, and other community-based communication strategies.   

“Our hope is that this assessment will be the first step towards a communication plan that is comprehensive, accessible, reaches the right groups of people and overcomes language, literacy, and cultural barriers,” said Valerie George, Community Outreach Program Manager.  “We do not want to discourage people from eating locally-caught fish, which is a source of healthy food. Our goal is to help people make well-informed choices about eating local fish.”