Is it Safe to Eat Gator Blues (~10lbs)?! Watch out for Mercury and PCBs!!!

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Hello, Blog Readers! 

Today I am here to talk about something rather serious: fish consumption guidelines. Specifically, I will be talking about Gator Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) consumption guidelines. As you all know, Extreme Philly Fishing is a firm believer that educating the angling community about the different aspects and sub-fields of fishing is overall beneficial to anglers themselves and the ecosystem alike. Thus, I hope you stay with me for a few more minutes and learn a lot about what and what not to eat when it comes to Bluefish!

Portrayed above is a Gator Blue, which is in reality a Bluefish in the range of ~10lbs.
The fish above weighted in at 10.55lbs.

The overall story is that I went down for some "Gator Blues" for the first time in my life this year (2016), just a few days ago. That wasn't my first ever Bluefish trip; mind you -- if you guys follow me on social media, you already know that I have caught a few "Cocktail Blues" last year: Bluefish ranging from 1 to 3lbs. That was, however, my first trip that focused on the elusive 10lbs+ Bluefish!

And I gotta tell you, folks -- the experience was quite unique! As I went down to the Jersey shore, my first impression was of an overpopulated fishery where most folks were eager to catch their table fare at all costs. Forget about the shoulder-to-shoulder fishing (a.k.a. combat fishing) -- the scenario down there was grotesque! It was really "every man for himself." And if catching their dinner for the day wasn't enough (one fish), certain folks were taking way more than they could handle! The level of CPR -- Catch, Photo, & Release -- was almost non-existent. As I looked around, some folks were taking three fish. Some others were taking 5 fish. And on the extreme level, certain anglers were "limiting out" with 15 Gator Blues in their small coolers. We are talking about ~150lbs of fish right here, fellas!  

One of the New Jersey inlets when the Bluefish action is hot. Possibly worse than the Trout Opening Day in Southeast Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Sea-Money Fishing

I approached one gentleman and asked him how he would consume all of his four ten pounders. The response was not too surprising: "I will give some away to my family and friends." And then, the question of the day popped up in my head: "Do these people actually know how harmful it is to eat these fish?!" And fellas -- it saddens me to say this: most people have absolutely no idea about it. For this reason, I shall enlighten you now about the chronic consequences of consuming Gator Blues. I figured that it would be better for me to write a post before it is too late; so certain folks can stop poisoning their loved ones with high levels of mercury and PCBs.

1. Bluefish Fish Consumption Guidelines in New Jersey 

Since I am talking about Gator Blues mainly in New Jersey, here is NJ's consumption guidelines for it. Please note that an angler should consult his state's fish consumption guidelines before taking home any Species of fish to eat! That is the smart way of protecting yourself and your loved ones from the nasty chronic illnesses that contaminated fishes offer. 

Besides offering an array of information on heavy metals, PCBs (Polychlorinated byphenyls), and the definition of "meals per month," the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health clearly states the following on page five:

"Bluefish -- greater than 6lbs/24 inches: 6 meals per year for general population and zero meals per year for high risk population"


"Bluefish -- less than 6lbs/24 inches: 1 meal per month for general population and zero meals per year for high risk population" 

According to the definitions, let's run some mathematics now, so that everyone can understand what is the scale of the numbers that we are talking about here.

Let's say that one Gator Blue is about ten pounds. That is equivalent to 160 oz. After cleaning it and trimming it correctly, let's take an estimate of the fillets to be around 50% of its total body weight. Thus, 5lbs of lean meat. That is equivalent to 80 oz. Keep that in mind. 
One meal per month or serving per month is defined by government agencies to be an 8 oz. fish fillet. That is pretty much a serving of Salmon that you get in any restaurant chain out there. Having 5lbs of lean meat (~80 oz.) means having 10 servings/meals.

According to what we just read in the guidelines, for a Gator Blue (greater than 6lbs/24 inches), the recommended is 6 meals per year!!! In other words, one Gator Bluefish's meat is already enough to pass the recommended annual fish consumption guidelines for a single person. 

The photo above portrays an one pound piece of Bluefish fillet. In other words, 16 oz. of lean meat. Two servings/meals for a single person. Photo Credit: Johnny Bui Fishing

But we don't always eat fish by ourselves, do we? When having a Gator Blue, it is all about sharing -- as the angler mentioned to me at the inlet. In this case, according to the guidelines, one could have a hearty and healthy meal (within the guidelines) for a family of two, five times a year. One fish. Even for a family of four, one fish can provide nearly half of the annual recommended servings for a Gator Blue per person. In other words, for a family of four, two 10lbers are enough to fulfill the whole quota for the year.    

And then, you may ask Extreme Philly Fishing now -- what happens when we overeat it?! Well...that is what we will discuss next.

2. What Happens When you Eat a Gator Blue?

The consequences of overeating Gator Blues don't come right away. In other words, the symptoms for eating contaminated fish are not acute. They are chronic. From medicine, let's recall that acute means "severe and sudden" conditions (i.e. common cold). Chronic, on the other hand, means "long-developing" conditions (i.e. cancer). For this exact reason, many anglers believe that it is absolutely fine to consume those fish. Their mentality is simple and blunt: "If I don't get sick after eating the fish, they are safe to eat."

Unfortunately, that is a very faulty mentality. After all, the chronic contamination syndromes from eating contaminated fish come from heavy metals and PCBs (Polychlorinated byphenyls). In terms of heavy metals, I am mainly talking about Mercury (Hg) -- though, other heavy metals found in fish can be harmful to humans as well, when consumed in large quantities over time. For PCBs, all you need to know is that they are man-made chemicals that have no smell or taste. 

The worst part is that these two components tend to accumulate in any organism's body...They don't really leave after consumed. So, what exactly happens when you consume a Gator Blue?! What happens is very simple: heavy metals and PCBs build up in different live organisms throughout the food chain: zooplankton (with possible heavy metals) consumes phytoplankton (with possible PCBs); fish larvae consumes zooplankton; smaller fishes consume fish larvae; Bluefish consumes smaller fishes. And at the end of that is the Bluefish eater -- human being consumes contaminated Bluefish. :)

The mind-blowing aspect of this food chain concept is that we really are what we eat. Although each organism was consumed and died, its legacy (i.e. heavy metals & PCBs) was passed down to the other organism. And if you have eaten Bluefish in the past (or any other type of fish, really), you should know that you have some of that in you as well. 

The key idea here is that low quantities of Mercury and PCBs will not hurt anyone. Moderation is key. Thus, if a person follows the fish consumption guidelines by the Department of Health, everything should be okay. However, if a person is exposed to those contaminants over a long period of time, meaning that the person has been eating contaminated fish over and over and over again, then there will be a built up and problems will arise.

3. The Consequences of Overeating Gator Blues

If you are reading this and you have been overeating Gator Blues for the last couple years, I seriously recommend you to stop. For your own sake, you should do it. If you have been giving huge numbers of contaminated fish to your loved ones, and they have been over consuming it, know that you have been slowly poisoning them over time (sadly).  

Mercury is no joke, folks. This is not a matter of opinion. This is a fact. High quantities of mercury in a human body will damage the kidneys and the nervous system. Low mercury poisoning over time can bring forth memory loss, fatigue, headaches, loss of focus, etc. Although there have been many scientific reports of mercury level in North-Atlantic fishes being in decline, it is better to be safe than sorry. Note that Bluefish are classified as having high mercury contents in relationship to other Species of fish:

Least Mercury Classification: 0.09 parts per million (i.e. Atlantic Croaker, Flounder, Perch)
Moderate Mercury Classification: 0.09-0.29 ppm (i.e. Striped Bass, Cod, Skate)
High Mercury Classification: 0.30-0.49 ppm (i.e. Bluefish)
Highest Mercury Classification: >0.50 ppm (i.e. Shark)

When it comes to PCBs, it doesn't get any better. Polychlorinated Byphenyls are extremely dangerous because scientists are not yet sure of what it can do to human beings. Summarizing, its symptoms are partially undetermined. Regardless, getting sick from PCBs build up depends on the amount of PCBs that has entered the body, how long the individual has been exposed for, and how sensitive each individual's body is to PCBs. I hope this makes it clear that eating big Bluefish over and over will eventually bring forth health issues. The worst case scenario for PCBs built up is definitely the production of carcinogens in the human body. In other words, the production of cancerous cells. Now...wouldn't it suck if someone got cancer because they ate too many contaminated fish?! Definitely.

Finally, make sure to never feed contaminated fish to a pregnant woman or a <5 years old child. It is a fact that developing fetuses and young children are the most vulnerable when it comes to these contaminants. These folks fit in the "high risk population category," which is why the Department of Health has zeroed their annual meals in the fish consumption guidelines. The reasons for that are quite simple -- for example: when a pregnant woman ingests PCBs and heavy metals, there is a chance that those contaminants will be passed to the baby through the placenta. That can result in slower mental development. Similarly, young children who are exposed may experience developmental health effects as well. 

To prevent all these health problems, make sure to eat responsibly...

4. Alternatives to Eating Gator Blues

Of course the main alternative would be to eat Species of fish that are lower in heavy metals and PCBs, such as the Atlantic Croaker (Micropogonias undulatus), Summer Flounder (Paralichthys dentatus), White Perch (Morone americana), etc. However, that doesn't mean that you must stop eating Bluefish, specially if that is one of your favorites! 

As a rule of thumb in the fishing community, eating younger fish of the same Species is always a safer bet (don't forget about creels and limits, though). The meat is tastier and the contaminants' percentage is lower as well. Last year I took home a few Cocktail Blues in the range of 2-3lbs, and they were absolutely delicious! As you may or may not have noticed, their consumption guidelines (<6lbs, 24 inches) is pretty much two times that of the Gator BluesUltimately, like I mentioned previously in this post, moderation is key. As far as the guidelines are followed, no problems should arise! Plus, fishes taste better when they are fresh anyways. If you want to consume another one in a healthy fashion, take them one by one instead of freezing piles of fish.

5. Extra Notes

Additionally, I would recommend everyone to follow the following practices for the sake of our sport:

Practice Selective Harvest: take home only what you can eat or what you will use. Don't waste resources! Make sure to release trophy fishes to preserve fish genetics for future generations of anglers. Also, release rare Species of fish to a certain body of water to preserve its populations. Think about the future!

Follow the Law: Don't poach. Follow the creel and limits according to your state regulations. Not only you will avoid fines and sleepless nights in jail, but also save yourself from being hated in your local fishing community for doing despicable things. Be a team player and protect the environment.

Clean after Yourself: Nobody likes to see a fishing spot trashed! As crude as it may sound, don't sh*t where you eat (pardon the choice of words). Or in a more polite way, don't cause any trouble or destroy a place where you frequently go to. You will be doing everyone a favor -- believe me.

Practice CPR (Catch, Photo, & Release): Reinforce aquatic sustainability by being a proud steward and good sportsman -- release most of your catches! It is a great feeling to see a nice fish swim away. If you fish for fame, know that you don't need to kill a fish to show the rest of the world that you are good at the sport. Film it! Photo it! Release it! You will gain more respect by doing so.

I hope you folks enjoyed this post! 

Best of luck to all of us,

Long Days and Pleasant Nights,


Leo S.