General Health Advice for People Catching and Eating Sport Fish in California

Tips to Protect Your Health

  • Fish that contain chemicals that may be toxic are found in different parts of California. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA)'s Good Catch California program provides information and advice to help people make healthy choices when eating fish.
  • The amounts of chemicals found in sport fish in California are not known to cause immediate sickness. But chemicals can collect in the body over time, and may eventually affect your health or that of your children.
  • This general advisory gives some tips on catching, preparing, and eating fish. It is not intended to discourage you from eating fish, but should be used as a guide to make your sport fish eating safer.

General Tips

Fish in a variety of locations rather than in one location.
Chemical levels can vary from place to place.

Eat different types of fish.
Some species of fish have more chemicals than others due to different feeding behavior.

If possible, eat smaller amounts of several different types of fish rather than a large amount of one type that may have high levels of chemicals.

What types of fish have higher levels of chemicals?
Fish that eat other fish (predatory fish) generally accumulate more mercury.

In lakes and rivers, bass species (striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass) are often the top predators. In the ocean, sharks are the top predators. 

What types of fish have lower levels of contaminants?
Rainbow trout and various small sunfish (such as bluegill and redear sunfish) are often the least contaminated fish in water bodies.

Eat smaller fish.
Some chemicals can build up in fish as they get older.

The larger the fish, the higher the levels of chemicals they may contain, within the same species. For example, large striped bass usually contain more mercury than small striped bass.

It is always fun to catch large fish, but it is safer to eat smaller ones. If you keep large fish, freeze some of the fish and eat smaller meals spaced out over time.

Cooking and Preparing Fish

Eat only the fillet.
The fillet portions of fish are the safest parts to eat. Chemicals tend to be much higher in the guts, liver, and skin of fish. Do not eat these parts and do not use them to make sauces, stock or chowder. Also, avoid frequent consumption of any reproductive parts such as eggs or roe.

Eat only the meat of crabs—not their internal organs—because, in general, chemicals such as pesticides and PCBs are more likely to accumulate in the organs. Do not eat the soft “green stuff” (called “crab butter,” mustard, tomalley, liver, or hepatopancreas) that is found in the body section of crabs.

Cook fish or shellfish that you catch and observe quarantines.
Certain fish may carry parasites (worms), and shellfish that you gather may have viruses or bacteria that can make you sick. Cook fish thoroughly to destroy harmful parasites and germs.

Some shellfish, particularly mussels, may contain natural toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) or other serious illness, and even death. Cooking will not destroy these toxins, so it is important to observe shellfish quarantines.

Mussels are quarantined from May 1 through October 30 in California, and local quarantines may be posted for other bivalves. Call the 24-hour PSP information line for recorded information about quarantines in California at (800) 553-4133.

For more information on natural contaminants in fish and shellfish, contact the regional marine advisor for your area by calling the Cooperative Extension Office under the county government listings in your phone book.

The annual mussel quarantine does not apply to companies licensed by the State as certified shellfish harvesters. The California Department of Public Health tests and certifies the shellfish from these companies to be safe.

Get the Benefits of Eating Fish

Eating fish that are low in mercury and other chemicals can benefit your health and that of your family.

Fish contain heart-healthy fats called “omega-3s” that also benefit the brain and eyes. Fish species such as trout, salmon, bass, sardines, and anchovies generally contain higher levels of omega-3s than other species.

It is important for women to eat fish while they are pregnant because omega-3s help the baby’s brain develop.

Special advice for women ages 18-45, including pregnant women, and children 1-17 years
When OEHHA's advisories are to protect against mercury, OEHHA recommends lower eating amounts for women ages 18 – 45 and children 1 – 17 years.

Some chemicals may be passed on to the unborn child through the placenta. Babies and children are more affected by mercury because their brains are still developing. Following the advisories is therefore especially important for this special risk group.