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Eat More and Better Fish

If your New Year's resolutions include becoming healthier and more intelligent, Minnesota Sea Grant recommends you eat fish, particularly ciscoes (formerly called lake herring) and whitefish from Lake Superior.

As food, these native species have several things going for them:

  • They are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Their flesh accumulates relatively low amounts of contaminants.
  • They are locally available almost all year long.

More than most fish served on a platter, Lake Superior's species are rich in fish oils, which are akin to liquid gold in the health-and-wellness community. Thought to help fish survive in cold water by lubricating cell membranes, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the probability of developing a variety of medical problems in humans. Studies testify that fish oils help to maintain the elasticity of artery walls, decrease the risk of having a heart attack or stroke, prevent blood clots, reduce blood pressure, and stabilize the heart rhythm. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week.

In addition warding off heart troubles, research shows that omega-3 fatty acids enhance intellectual performance. In adults, fish oils combat age-related memory and cognitive declines and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Since omega-3 fatty acids contribute to the structure of the outer membrane of brain cells, youngsters require them to create new pathways between nerve cells as learning and memory expand. Folklore proves factual: fish really is a brain food.

Scientific literature also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids support emotional balance and a positive attitude throughout life. Studies link deficiencies in fish oil consumption with depression. Some researchers speculate that a fetus depletes its mother’s omega-3 levels leading to instances of post-partum depression.

Fish oils may also help prevent breast cancer in combination with a low-fat vegetable-rich diet. Several studies indicate that fish oils improve survival and quality of life in cancer patients. Fish oils also seem to be effective in reducing inflammation and combating arthritis.

To maximize the benefits of consuming fish oil, people would need to eat more than one pound of oil-rich fish per day, which is unrealistic for most and inadvisable. Health authorities issue fish consumption advisories and recommendations based on estimates of a species' contaminant load. They look at mercury and PCB concentrations, which vary with species, waterbody, and fish size.

Of course, a cautionary word needs to accompany all the compelling reasons to eat Lake Superior fish. The nuances of an aquatic lifestyle allow fish, more than the terrestrial animals we eat, to accumulate environmental contaminants in their tissues. (For instance, mercury and PCBs bond with organic matter and bioaccumulate through the aquatic food web.) At high enough concentrations, mercury and PCBs could more than offset the benefits of eating fish. These pollutants can damage childhood development, affect behavior, and possibly cause cancer. Fish advisories are crafted to keep people's contaminant loads well below harmful thresholds.

Studies conducted by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission indicate that both ciscoes and whitefish are low in mercury and PCBs. Their meat has less mercury than the equivalent amount of canned tuna. The Minnesota Department of Health advises people to eat just one serving of cisco or whitefish from Lake Superior a week. Lake trout caught in Lake Superior contain a bit more mercury than ciscoes and whitefish, but on average, they are less contaminated than halibut and albacore tuna.

Jeff Gunderson, fisheries and aquaculture extension educator with Minnesota Sea Grant, recommends removing as much skin and fat from your fish as possible. He says that properly trimming fish can reduce contaminants by over 80 percent, except for mercury, which binds to the muscle tissue and can’t be cut or cooked out.

"Eating Lake Superior whitefish and ciscoes is good for you, the environment, and the community," said Gunderson. "In addition to their high omega-3 fatty acid content and low contaminant loads, they are locally caught. By purchasing locally caught fish instead of, say, tuna, you are cutting down on packaging and transportation, and supporting the commercial fishermen of our region."

One of these local fishmongers is Dick Martin of Sivertson Fisheries Inc., Superior, Wisc. Martin says that although wind and lake currents can curtail fishing and fish availability, whitefish, ciscoes, or both are generally for sale throughout the year. Cisco catches peak from September through December and whitefish are scarcest in October and November.

Lake Superior's fish are on the menus of many local restaurants. To purchase Lake Superior fish for your own kitchen, Martin recommends calling ahead if you want to come to the Sivertson Fisheries dock. Local catches are also available at the Park Bench on Miller Trunk Highway, the area's smoked fish shops, and Super One. Occasionally, you might find locally caught fish at the seafood counter of Mount Royal Fine Foods.

A Wise Fish-Eater's Edict

  1. Know the species
  2. Know where it came from
  3. Smaller is better
  4. Trim fat and fatty tissue
  5. Cook so fat drips away

Fish species, their mean mercury level in parts per million (ppm) and their Omega-3 fatty acids content in grams per 3-oz. serving.

Lake Superior Fish
*from GLIFWC reports and Addis article
Hg Omega-3
Whitefish 0.05 1.36
Cisco (Lake Herring) 0.09 0.94
Lean Lake Trout 0.22 1.28
Top 10 fish and shellfish consumed in the United States
*from American Heart Association fact sheet
Hg Omega-3
Canned tuna (light) 0.12 0.26–0.73
Shrimp ND* 0.27
Pollock 0.06 0.46
Salmon (fresh,frozen) 0.01 0.68–1.83
Cod 0.11 0.13–0.24
Catfish 0.05 0.15–0.20
Clams ND* 0.24
Flounder or sole 0.05 0.43
Crabs 0.06 0.34–0.40
Scallops 0.05 0.17

By Sharon Moen
January 2008

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