Fish Advisories Program

Helping You Make Smart Fish Choices

We want you to eat fish and shellfish because they are good for you. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least two times a week as part of a healthy diet. Studies indicate that most of us don't eat enough fish to gain the health benefits. Fish, like most foods, can contain chemical contaminants that can impact health. Our Fish Program evaluates the levels of chemical contaminants in sport-caught (recreational) and store-bought (commercial) fish. We provide advice on which fish are safe to eat, which fish to limit, and which ones to avoid. By making smart choices, you and your family can gain the health benefits while keeping your risk from exposure to contaminants low.

Resources We Provide

How We Develop Fish Consumption Advisories

Eating fish is the main way people in Washington State are exposed to toxic chemicals such as mercury, PCBs, and DDT. These chemicals can impact human health. The most vulnerable populations are the developing fetus and child, and people who eat a lot of fish.

Program staff evaluate recreational and commercial fish tissue data to determine chemical contaminant levels and provide science-based fish consumption advice to the public. There are 14 site-specific recreational fish consumption advisories, which include Puget Sound and a statewide advisory due to mercury. We balanced advisory information with the health benefits gained from eating fish, to provide safe eating recommendations. Additional advice is provided on how to cook and clean fish to reduce exposure to contaminants. There is also statewide fish consumption advisories due to mercury that includes recreational fish and commercial fish.

We use an approach similar to EPA's Guidance for Assessing Chemical Contaminant Data for Use in Fish Advisories Vol. 1-4 for assessing mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants. EPA's guidelines provide a framework from which states build and develop state and regional fish advisories based on science and established risk assessment paradigms. Fish tissue evaluation and issuance of a fish consumption advisory involves several steps and the overall process consists of three components: risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication which assures that the public is provided with fish consumption advice that is science based, accurate, and easy to understand.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment involves calculating allowable meal limits based on known fish contaminant concentrations. These calculations are conducted for both non-cancer and cancer endpoints using the appropriate Reference Dose or Cancer Slope Factor, if available. These initial calculations are the starting point for evaluating contaminant data to determine whether a fish advisory is warranted. Additionally, known or estimated consumption rates help determine the potential magnitude of exposure and highlight sensitive groups or populations.

Known critical health endpoints are associated with different contaminants of concern. PCBs and mercury are the main contaminants that drive fish consumption limits in Washington State. The goal is to have the public consume fish at chemical concentrations which if ingested over a lifetime would not be expected to cause adverse health effects. We obtain tissue data from several sources, including our own monitoring efforts, the Washington State Department of Ecology Toxics Monitoring Program, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as part Puget Sound Assessment and Monitoring Program, the US Geological Survey Water Quality Assessment Program, the EPA, and other studies carried out by academic institutions and tribal research.

Risk Management

Risk management includes (but is not limited to) consideration of contaminant background concentrations, reduction in contaminant concentrations through preparation and cooking techniques, known health benefits from fish consumption, contaminant concentrations or health risks associated with replacement foods, and cultural importance of fish. Other considerations are the health endpoints associated with a contaminant, the strength or weaknesses of the supporting toxicological or sampling data, and whether effects are transient or irreversible.

Risk Communication

Risk communication is the outreach component of the fish advisory. Interpretation of data from the risk assessment and risk management components determines the fish consumption guidance and the impacted populations. The communication component develops the message. Our objective in messaging and outreach is to balance the benefits gained from eating fish with the risks by increasing consumption of low contaminant, high health benefit fish. We want the public to eat fish at least two times a week as part of a healthy diet while avoiding high contaminant health damaging fish.