Fish Facts & Consumption Guidelines
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Fish Consumption Guidelines for Alaskans
Alaska health officials recommend that everyone eat fish at least twice a week to obtain important health benefits.
However, because too much mercury can harm the developing brain and nervous system of unborn babies and young children, we recommend that women who are or can become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children choose the types of fish they consume wisely. The recommended levels of fish consumption are sufficiently protective for the most sensitive member of the population, the human fetus.
People who follow the guidelines may mix and match between species and sizes as long as they don't go beyond the total recommended amount per week, on average. More meals from the unrestricted category may always be added without significantly impacting a person's mercury intake for the week. Also, because older predatory fish contain more mercury than smaller and younger fish, it is better to consume smaller and younger fish. Click on the fish consumption point system on the left for a detailed explanation.
Everyone else, including adult men and adult women who cannot become pregnant, is encouraged to eat as much fish from Alaska waters as they would like.
Benefits of Fish Consumption
Fish is nutritious. Fish is an excellent source of lean protein, and provides essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, selenium and vitamins A, C and D.
Fish is good for your baby. Women who eat fish while pregnant and breastfeeding give their babies the omega-3 fatty acids they need for optimal brain, eye and nerve development.
Fish is brain food. One study found that mothers who ate more fish during pregnancy had babies with higher IQs and fewer behavioral problems than mothers who ate little or no fish. [Hibbeln Jr., Davis JM., Steer C., et al. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC Study): an observational cohort study. Lancet 2007;369:578-85]
Fish is good for your heart. Eating seafood at least once or twice per week, especially those higher in omega-3 fatty acids, reduces risk of death from coronary heart disease by as much as 36 percent. [Mozaffarian, D., Rimm, E. Fish Intake, Contaminants, and Human Health: Evaluating the Risks and the Benefits. JAMA. 2006, Oct 18; 295(15):1885-99. Review. Erratum in: JAMA. 2007, Feb 14;297(6):590.]
Facts about Contaminants in Fish
Almost all fish contain some level of mercury, a toxic element that occurs naturally in the earth's crust. Long-lived or predatory fish like shark have more mercury than small fish that are lower in the food chain. Too much exposure to mercury can harm the developing nervous system of unborn babies and growing children. State health officials are actively monitoring Alaska residents and have not found any cases of unsafe mercury exposures resulting from consumption of Alaska fish.
© John Hyde, ADF&G/Alaska Division of Tourism
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has an ongoing Fish Monitoring Program that has sampled thousands of fish. ADEC observed a wide variation of mercury content among the over 53 species of fish sampled from Alaska waters between 2001 and 2013. All species of Alaska wild salmon have very low levels of mercury.
Based on the Fish Monitoring Program mercury data, the Alaska Division of Public Health has developed fish consumption guidelines for women who are or can become pregnant, nursing mothers and children. The benefits of eating fish far outweigh any potential health risks as long as these guidelines are followed.
Regional guidelines for women of child-bearing age and young children who eat northern pike are available below:
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. When these chemicals are released into the environment, it takes a long time for them to break down. When POPs get into an animal or a human they can go to the fatty tissues and stay there for a long time, instead of getting metabolized or excreted from the body. Thus while POPs concentrations in fish may be very low, ongoing frequent fish consumption can lead to an accumulation of POPs over time in human tissue. Because POPs are so persistent, they biomagnify in food chains and can reach high concentrations in the fat of top predators such as polar bears.
POPs exposures from most fish consumption are so low that any human health effects would be very subtle, if present at all. Adverse health effects associated with POPs exposure may include hormone disruption, effects on learning and behavior, immune system suppression, and cancer.
All Alaskan fish species tested have either non-detectible or very low concentrations of POPs. No POPs were detected at levels of health concern in any fish species tested, and no limitations in Alaska fish consumption are warranted or recommended based on POP levels.
Good Advice for Everyone
Eat fish at least twice a week.
Eat smaller, younger fish. They generally have less mercury than those that are long-lived and eat other fish. Larger fish are often breeding females, so keeping them in the ocean helps sustain fish populations and helps prevent over-fishing.
Eat a variety of fish and other seafood.
Choose fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury more often. Examples include:
- Wild Alaska salmon
- Black cod, also known as sablefish
- Canned chunk light tuna
More Information about the Guidelines
- A meal size is 6 ounces (oz.) uncooked fillet for adults, or about the size of two decks of cards. A child's meal size is considered to be 3 ounces or less (uncooked weight).
- Halibut weight is based on the whole fish, wet weight. Alaska's commercially caught halibut weigh an average of about 32 pounds each. Therefore, halibut fillets bought in stores or restaurants are safe for women who are or can become pregnant, nursing mothers and children to eat as often as four times a week. Everyone else is encouraged to enjoy commercially caught halibut as often as they would like.
- Lingcod length is measured from the nose tip to the fork in the tail, wet weight. There are different catch size limits for lingcod, depending on fishing location. Consult the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sport or subsistence fishing regulations at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/statewide/reghome.cfm for more information.
- People who are concerned about the mercury levels in fish can reduce their exposure by eating fish lower in mercury, such as any type of wild Alaska salmon. Everyone can eat as much wild Alaska salmon as they would like.
- Tuna is not caught in Alaska waters, but is often a staple in women's diets. Fresh or frozen tuna fillets and canned albacore tuna can have elevated levels of mercury. Alaska health officials recommend that women who eat tuna choose canned or pouched chunk light tuna packed in water. This type of tuna typically has less mercury than fillets or canned albacore.
- According to the federal government, women who are or can become pregnant, nursing mothers and children should not eat commercially sold shark, tilefish, king mackerel and swordfish. These large fish species usually contain the highest amounts of mercury.
People who catch and eat large amounts of fish (five or more meals a week) and would like additional guidance should contact the Section of Epidemiology at (907) 269-8000.