Health Risks

The following information has been provided by New York State Department of Health.

For more information on the NYS DOH Fish Advisory please visit their website NYS DOH Fish Advisory

Health Risks from Contaminants in Fish and Game

The primary contaminants of concern in New York State fish are mercury and PCBs. Other contaminants such as cadmium, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxin and mirex are also concerns in fish from some of the State's waterbodies. These chemicals build up in your body over time. Health problems that may result from these contaminants range from small changes in health that are hard to detect to birth defects and cancer. Women who eat highly contaminated fish and become pregnant may have increased risk of having children who are slower to develop and learn. Chemicals may have a greater effect on developing organs in young children or in unborn babies. Some chemicals may be passed on in mother's milk. Women beyond their childbearing years and men face fewer health risks from contaminants than do children (see Information on Chemicals in Sportfish and Game for more information).

Advice on Eating Raw or Partially Cooked Fish and Shellfish

Foods of animal origin, such as pork, poultry, beef, dairy products, eggs, fish and shellfish, can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites that can cause illness. Persons at high risk (for example, those who are immunocompromised, suffer from liver disease or other chronic diseases) can be more susceptible to and more severely affected by these infectious diseases. This is why we recommend that all of these foods be thoroughly cooked before eating. Government agencies and the food industry strive to minimize contamination of raw animal foods and provide healthful food products.

Algal Toxins in Clams, Oysters, Mussels, Scallops, Snails, Crabs and Lobsters

Under certain environmental conditions, some types of marine algae will grow in abundance ("bloom") and produce saxitoxin, a dangerous neurotoxin. These events are generally temporary, occurring midspring to early summer in New York State waters. Because mussels, oysters, clams and scallops filter feed they can concentrate the saxitoxin in their body tissues. Carnivorous snails (conch, whelks and moon snails) can accumulate dangerous levels of the toxin as they feed on contaminated shellfish.

Eating foods contaminated with saxitoxin can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), which affects the nervous system and in severe cases can lead to paralysis, respiratory failure and death. Saxitoxin cannot be removed through cooking. If consumption of saxitoxin is suspected, seek medical attention immediately.

NYS DEC monitors shellfish for saxitoxin, and temporarily closes harvest in areas with elevated levels of saxitoxin. Do not harvest or eat clams, oysters, mussels, scallops or carnivorous snails (conch, whelks, and moon snails) from areas closed to shellfish harvest due to saxitoxin.

NYS DOH advises that people not eat the soft green material (mustard, tomalley, liver or hepatopancreas) found in the body section of crabs and lobsters from any waters because cadmium, PCBs and other contaminants as well as toxins produced by some marine algae concentrate there. Because contaminants may be transferred to cooking liquid, people should also discard crab or lobster cooking liquid.

Check the NYS DEC website for information on shellfish harvest and for information on saxitoxin and other marine toxins. You can also call NYS DEC at (631) 444-0475 for information on shellfish regulations, including areas in which clam, oyster and mussel collection are permitted and at (631) 444-0480 for the latest information on emergency closures.

Blue-Green Algae Blooms

Blue-green algae are microscopic organisms naturally present in lakes and streams. They can become very abundant in warm, shallow, undisturbed surface water, forming "blooms" (often called algal blooms) that discolor the water or form scums on the water surface. Some blue-green algae produce toxins that could pose a health risk to people, pets and livestock when they are exposed to them in large enough quantities. Therefore, you should avoid all water contact (including swimming, wading and fishing) in areas where you can see algal blooms, and don't eat fish caught in areas with visible algal blooms. Rinse exposed skin with clean water if you contact algal blooms. For more information on algal blooms go to NYS DEC's website and for more information on potential health effects go to the NYS DOH website.

Botulism in Fish

In recent years, large numbers of some species of Lake Erie fish and waterfowl have been found dead, sick and dying, many of them as a result of botulism poisoning. The botulism poison is produced by Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium that is common in the environment and can produce harmful levels of botulism poison under some conditions. This poison has been found in some of the affected fish and waterfowl. The botulism poison can cause illness and death if eaten by humans or animals. Cooking may not destroy the botulism poison. This problem may also occur in other waters, and we don't know whether all or only some fish and waterfowl species can be affected. NYS DEC continues to monitor and investigate this problem.

No human cases of botulism poisoning have been linked to these events. However, as a precaution, do not eat any fish or game if they are found dead or dying, act abnormally or seem sick. If you must handle dead or dying fish, birds or other animals, cover your hands with disposable nitrile, rubber or plastic protective gloves or a plastic bag.

Last updated January 19, 2016