You Are What You Eat

This article is from Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Edward Denton

How often do you think about whether the fish on your dinner plate is safe to eat? This question should resonate with anyone who wants to utilize the bountiful resources the Mobile Bay Watershed has to offer. 

Fish consumption advisories are published in our state by the Alabama Department of Public Health, which provides critical information about which fish in specific waterways are safe to consume. Mobile Baykeeper is working toward a future where our community no longer has to ask whether they can eat what they catch.

To accomplish this, we need to understand what causes advisories to be put into place, how we as humans interact with our environment to influence these factors, and the scope of the problem.

Within the past several decades, certain types of fish have been found to contain elevated levels of certain contaminants, such as methyl-mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These contaminants can be harmful to human health if ingested in large amounts over an extended period of time, leaving anglers and their families who frequently eat certain species especially vulnerable.

In the Mobile River Basin, all restrictions for fish consumption are due to methyl-mercury contamination. Fish that are at the top of the food chain and have a long lifespan are more likely to contain higher levels of mercury.

Through a process called biomagnification, all the mercury that is present in smaller critters is absorbed by larger animals when consumed through the food chain. This gives a whole new meaning to “you are what you eat.”

Mercury-related fish consumption advisories not only impact the health of local residents, but are particularly concerning to vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. This is because infants and children, whose nervous systems are still being formed, are more sensitive to the potential health effects of contaminants and may be more likely to experience immediate or long-term health complications, such as birth abnormalities. High levels of mercury can damage the brain and nervous system, leading to symptoms such as tremors, memory loss, and numbness in the hands and feet.

Long-term exposure to mercury has been linked to damage of the kidneys and kidney failure and cardiovascular problems which can lead to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Besides human health, fish consumption advisories also impact the local economy and culture, as fishing is an important recreational and commercial activity in the waters around Mobile Bay.

To address this issue, the state performs monitoring efforts and issues annual fish consumption advisories for many waterways throughout the state, including Mobile Bay, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and many of the rivers and creeks that flow into Mobile and Baldwin counties. These advisories provide specific guidance on which types of fish are safe to eat and in what quantities, based on the levels of contaminants found in the fish. 

Each advisory, specific to each location and species, says one of four things: “No restriction”, “1 meal/month”, “2 meals/month”, and “Do Not Eat Any.” Some of the advisories apply to “all species” in the body of water. Otherwise, the advisories are species-specific. Largemouth bass, striped mullet, black crappie, spotted bass, blue catfish, and channel catfish are just some of the species mentioned in Mobile and Baldwin counties. In fact, there are a total of 51 advisories for the Mobile Bay area as of 2022. 

As we continue to understand how this work and future work will be impactful toward reducing fish consumption advisories, we ask that you stay aware of which species and waterways are listed in your area of interest. Just call the Alabama Fish Consumption Advisory Hotline, a free resource provided by Waterkeepers of Alabama (844-219-7475), and dial “4” for our area.

If you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. If you teach him to call the Fish Consumption Advisory Hotline, he can eat healthily as well. 

Alabama has an opportunity to protect the health of everyone who eats wild-caught fish from our waters with the Safe and Healthy Outdoor Recreation (SHOR) Act of 2023. The act, if passed, will ensure outdoor recreationists, paddlers, swimmers, and fishermen across Alabama are better informed about fish consumption advisories in our rivers, streams, creeks, and bays. This bill has bipartisan support in the Alabama Senate. Learn more and contact your state representative about supporting the SHOR ACT here.


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