Rockfish is a popular seafood, but there are some concerns about whether it is safe to eat. This article will examine the evidence on the safety and risks of eating rockfish. Key questions answered include:
Is rockfish high in mercury?
Rockfish tends to be low in mercury. The FDA lists rockfish as a “best choice” fish that is low in mercury. The mercury levels in rockfish tested by the FDA range from 0.03 to 0.26 ppm, which is well below the 1 ppm mercury limit.
Does rockfish have PCBs or other contaminants?
PCBs and dioxins have been detected in rockfish, but at low levels that are not a significant health concern. The Environmental Defense Fund lists rockfish as an “Eco-Best” low risk choice for PCBs and dioxins.
Is it safe to eat the liver or other organs?
No, it is not recommended to eat the liver or other organs of rockfish. The liver and other organs can accumulate higher levels of contaminants. Eat only the muscle fillets.
Are there sustainability concerns with rockfish?
Some rockfish species like yelloweye rockfish are overfished, while other species are sustainably managed. Choose rockfish caught using responsible methods evaluated by Seafood Watch. Avoid endangered varieties.
Mercury Levels in Rockfish
Mercury is a heavy metal that can accumulate in certain fish and pose a health risk if consumed in high amounts over time. The FDA and EPA provide guidelines on how much mercury is safe to eat.
Here is an overview of the mercury data on rockfish:
FDA Mercury Testing
The FDA regularly tests different fish species for mercury as part of its Total Diet Study. Here are the results for rockfish:
|Mercury Range (ppm)
|Pacific Ocean Perch
|0.03 – 0.26
|Rockfish, Mixed Species
|0.05 – 0.31
|0.05 – 0.11
As the data shows, the mercury levels for all rockfish tested by the FDA are well below the 1 ppm mercury limit. The FDA lists rockfish under “best choice” fish that are lowest in mercury.
EPA National Listing of Fish Advisories
The EPA collects data on fish advisories issued by state and federal agencies due to contaminant levels. Rockfish is not on the EPA’s National Listing of Fish Advisories, indicating there are no warnings or restrictions due to mercury or other contaminants.
State Fish Consumption Advisories
There are no statewide advisories or restrictions on rockfish consumption due to mercury contamination. Some states do advise limiting consumption of certain rockfish species, but these are due to concerns about PCBs, dioxins or overfishing, which will be covered next.
In summary, rockfish consistently tests low in mercury and is considered one of the safer fish choices for minimizing mercury exposure according to the FDA and EPA data.
PCBs, Dioxins and Other Contaminants
Beyond mercury, some other contaminants that can accumulate in fish are PCBs, dioxins and flame retardants:
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are industrial chemicals that were banned in the 1970s but persist in the environment. Fish consumption is the main exposure route for PCBs in humans.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) compiled data on farmed and wild caught seafood, rating choices as “Eco-Best” (low in PCBs) to “Eco-Worst” (high in PCBs). Rockfish is rated as an “Eco-Best” species with very low levels of PCBs.
Specifically, the EDF reports PCB levels of 17.4 ppb (parts per billion) in wild caught rockfish. This is well below the FDA limit of 2000 ppb for PCBs in fish.
Dioxins are toxic environmental pollutants that can accumulate in animal fats. Similarly to PCBs, rockfish has very low levels of dioxins according to the EDF analysis.
The EDF reports dioxin levels of 0.2 to 0.5 pg/g (picograms per gram) in wild caught rockfish. This is far below the FDA limit of 7 pg/g for dioxins in fish.
Some recent studies have detected flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in rockfish and other seafood. However, rockfish have some of the lowest levels compared to other fish.
For example, a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found total PBDE levels of 6.4 ppb in rockfish compared to levels over 300 ppb in some catfish and carp samples.
While more research is needed on the impact of PBDEs, the low levels found in rockfish are well below any existing consumption limits or health advisories.
State Consumption Advisories
There are no statewide advisories for rockfish due to PCB, dioxin or other contaminants. However, some states provide recommendations for limiting rockfish intake:
- California – Advises no more than 2 servings per week of black rockfish due to PCBs and dioxins.
- Oregon – Advises no more than 1 serving per week of rockfish species like black rockfish and blue rockfish due to PCBs.
- Washington – Advises no more than 2 meals per month of rockfish species including black, brown, yelloweye and copper rockfish due to PCBs and dioxins.
These state recommendations are precautionary for sensitive groups like children and pregnant women. But overall, the data shows rockfish has low levels of contaminants that are not a significant health concern for most people eating moderate amounts.
Is It Safe to Eat the Liver and Other Organs?
While rockfish muscle meat is low in mercury and other contaminants, it is not recommended to eat the liver or other organs.
Studies have found the liver, kidney, spleen and other organs can accumulate higher levels of mercury, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants compared to the muscle:
- A study in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found mercury concentrations over 20 times higher in rockfish liver compared to the muscle tissue.
- PCB levels were 8 times higher in rockfish liver versus the fillets in a study in Science of the Total Environment.
The FDA also cautions against eating liver due to much higher mercury levels. The safest choice is to only eat the muscle fillet portions and avoid the internal organs and head.
Sustainability Concerns for Rockfish
In addition to safety, it is also important to consider sustainability when choosing rockfish.
There are around 70 species of rockfish, and some have been overfished while others are sustainably managed. Here are some key sustainability notes:
Overfished Rockfish Species
Some rockfish species like yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish have been overfished on the West Coast:
- Yelloweye rockfish is considered significantly depleted and catches are tightly regulated.
- Canary rockfish was declared overfished but has now recovered to sustainable levels.
These species should continue to be avoided or limited when making rockfish choices.
Sustainably Managed Species
Many other rockfish species are currently at healthy population levels and caught using sustainable methods:
- Black rockfish, blue rockfish and chilipepper rockfish from the West Coast are well managed.
- Pacific Ocean perch is abundant and sustainably fished with midwater trawl gear in Alaska.
Choosing these rockfish varieties harvested using responsible methods can support sustainable fisheries.
Seafood Watch Recommendations
Seafood Watch provides sustainability ratings for wild caught seafood. Here are some of their rockfish recommendations:
|Seafood Watch Rating
|Black rockfish (CA, OR, WA)
|Aurora rockfish (CA, OR, WA)
|Pacific Ocean Perch (AK)
Following Seafood Watch’s recommendations when choosing rockfish can help support responsible fisheries.
Overall, the evidence suggests that eating moderate amounts of rockfish fillets is safe for most people. Key conclusions include:
- Rockfish is low in mercury, with FDA tests showing levels well below the 1 ppm limit.
- PCB, dioxin and other contaminants are very low compared to regulatory limits.
- Avoid the liver and other organs which can be higher in contaminants.
- Some rockfish species remain overfished, while others are sustainable choices.
- Following Seafood Watch and state recommendations can minimize risks.
While a few precautionary advisories exist, these are focused on sensitive groups and frequent rockfish consumption. Eating rockfish fillets in moderation as part of a varied seafood diet is considered safe by government health and regulatory agencies.