Tag Archives: catfish

Angling For Safe-To-Eat Fish

May 25, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Eating wild-caught fish from rivers, streams, and dam sites is almost as fun as catching them. But consuming too much of certain fish species is not advised. Mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other pollutants can bioaccumulate inside some fish swimming in local waterways.

That doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t eat wild-caught fish—it just means that consumers should know what, how much, and how often they’re eating fish with potential trace amounts of contaminants.

A list of contaminated waters is maintained on the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s website. The department warns against long-term consumption of more than “eight ounces per week” of designated species of fish.

Mercury is a natural element in the environment, but it is often released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury that finds its way into local bodies of water can be transformed into methylmercury, which can then be absorbed by the aquatic life living there.

Mercury exposure affects nervous system and brain development. Developing fetuses and small children are the most affected, so parents and pregnant women should be cautious of mercury. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), on the other hand, are carcinogenic.

Testing for Pollutants

Greg Michl says the benefits of eating wild-caught fish outweigh the cons of mercury contamination, so long as one exercises proper precautions.

Michl has worked for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality for almost 27 years. As coordinator of the Nebraska Fish Tissue Program, he conducts investigations into surface water quality issues.

Methylmercury and PCB contamination in fish tissues are his primary concern. Michl says it’s easier to analyze bioconcentrations of these contaminants in fish tissues than it is to analyze in the water itself.

“We use fish as a surrogate,” says Michl, who is responsible for collecting tissue samples.

He uses electrofishing equipment to stun the fish before taking tissue samples—small biopsy plugs from near the dorsal spine—before returning the fish safely to the water. An Environmental Protection Agency lab then tests the samples, Michl assesses the data, and he reports his findings.

Methylmercury and PCB contamination appear to be under control in Nebraska. PCBs were first produced and marketed in the United States beginning in 1929.

PCBs gained widespread use as coolants and lubricants because of their remarkable insulating capacities and flame-retardant nature. Unfortunately, PCBs are extremely persistent in the environment and “bioconcentrate” within the food chain. As with methylymercury, fish absorb PCBs as they feed in contaminated waterbodies.

Fortunately, Michl reports that PCB concentrations in fish tissue are on the decline and only a few locations are still under advisory. EPA regulations banned the manufacture and use of PCBs in the late 1970s. Michl expects to see many PCB contamination sites fall off the radar in time.

As for mercury, “The U.S. has a pretty good system in place for regulating what goes into the air,” Michl says, “but eradicating contamination would have to be a worldwide effort. The U.S. can’t do it alone.”

Michl says methylmercury has been detected almost everywhere across the state of Nebraska “primarily in reservoirs and lakes,” and “we see it in some riverine systems’ fish.”

Beware of Predatory Fish

Sue Dempsey says there is “no solution at this time” to methylmercury contamination in local waters. For 25 years she has been a risk assessor and toxicologist for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in the Public Health division.

Her job, in part, is to help protect Nebraska citizens from contaminants in fisheries. “We monitor the fish and issue guidelines for fish consumption and ingestion,” she says. “We advise people on which species to choose.”

On methylmercury, she says bioaccumulation is a concern: “Big fish eat little fish, and it goes up the food chain.” She also warns that regional contaminants, such as pesticides, are a pollution concern for fisheries.

Nevertheless, she fishes, eats fish, and recommends others do the same while taking proper precautions. Dempsey’s advice on selecting and portioning fish to avoid contamination can be found in her “Eat Safe Fish in Nebraska” brochure, which she encourages the public to read.

Regarding wild-caught Nebraska fish, Dempsey says, “I’m big on moderation.” Her brochure advises that bluegill, crappie, perch, and rainbow trout have the lowest concentrations of methylmercury contamination. Catfish are acceptable, walleye and pike should be limited, and bass are not recommended.

Michl advises anglers to watch out for predator catfish such as the flathead, as they have higher concentrations of methylmercury than do channel catfish, which scavenge for food. But that does not mean avoid them entirely.

Dempsey says PCBs store in fat tissue of fish. “PCBs can be removed easily by removing portions and by baking,” she says. Baking allows the fat to drip away from the fish. Mercury appears throughout the entire fish.

So, the next time you’ve got a big Missouri River flathead on the line, and you have to decide whether to catch or release, consider the risk of contaminants when making your choice. I always advise catch-and-release of big catfish anyway. 

Fish Species and Pollutants of Concern in Local Waters

A 2015 report from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality warns of pollutants in 142 bodies of water across the state. Ten of the waterbodies are located in Douglas and Sarpy counties. The department’s list does not “ban eating fish” from the contaminated waters. Instead, the advisory urges consumers to limit long-term intake of specified fish species from the identified waterbodies “to eight ounces per week (for adults).”

Location—species—pollutant

Douglas County

  • Carter Lake—Largemouth Bass—PCBs
  • Prairie View Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Standing Bear Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Two Rivers Lake No. 1—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Zorinsky Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury

Sarpy County

  • Halleck Park Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury, Selenium
  • Offutt Lake—Channel Cat—PCBs
  • Walnut Creek Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • Wehrspann Lake—Largemouth Bass—Mercury
  • West Papillion Creek—Carp—PCBs, Mercury

For more information, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health produced the brochures “Eat Safe Fish in Nebraska” (dhhs.ne.gov/publichealth/documents/fishbrochureenglish.pdf) and “Environmental Risk Assessment Fish Consumption Advisories 2016” (dhhs.ne.gov/publichealth/pages/puh_enh_environmentalriskassessment_fishtissue.aspx), while the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has published 2015 results of its Regional Ambient Fish Tissue Program (deq.ne.gov/publica.nsf/pages/wat239).

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Lenten Fish Fries

March 16, 2017 by
Photography by Joshua Foo

Lent in Omaha—a time of repentance and moderation for devout Catholics—is synonymous with crowded lines of happy, drunken people waiting for heaping piles of deep-fried fish.

Parishioners and non-churchgoers alike rejoice with the approach of Ash Wednesday. Non-Catholics who have never joined in the fun should not hesitate. All are welcome. Lenten fish fries (complete with raffles, pickle cards, and bake sales) are the biggest fundraising event of the year for many Catholic churches, schools, and charities in Omaha.

The beer-infused Friday fry-day gatherings are a popular annual ritual in Midwestern cities with robust Catholic communities. Omaha’s large Catholic population means that several dozen churches will host fish fries throughout the 40 days of Lenten fast (six weeks). Meanwhile, there are plenty of other community groups, such as the local Disabled American Veterans, hosting their own Lenten fish fries.

Some start the Friday before Ash Wednesday. Most begin after Ash Wednesday formally initiates the Lenten season. Some conclude after only a few weeks; others continue for the entire duration of the Lenten fast, including Good Friday two days before Easter.

Not all of them are bacchanals, with children running wild while parents and young adults socialize. A few are alcohol-free. But all are genuine family-friendly celebrations of community.

Expect to spend a few hours standing and waiting in line at Omaha’s most-popular fish fries. The long wait—and the chance to meet new friends while drinking beer—is sometimes the most fun part of the evening.

Omaha Magazine has compiled a list of six must-try fish fries for every week during Lent. But the list is hardly exhaustive. Other excellent fish fries are plentiful in the Omaha area. For those in a hurry, seeking out lesser-known gatherings might even save on the wait time. Or you might just discover a new Lenten favorite.

HOLY NAME CATHOLIC CHURCH (2017 Best of Omaha Winner)

2901 Fontenelle Blvd., Omaha, NE 68104 . 402.451.6622 . holynameomaha.org

Omaha’s oldest Lenten fish fry event, the Holy Name “Fryday” is famous for its jam-packed line, fried Alaskan pollock, french fries, coleslaw, and Rotella’s bread. The BYOB line makes the event especially unique for the 21-and-over crowd. Those arriving at 6 p.m. can expect to find a line stretching out the church, through the adjacent Holy Name Elementary School, and circling around the building. A wait time of three hours is not unusual. The initiated come prepared with coolers full of beer to sustain drinking through the long wait. Upon entering the main building, a free cup of beer is offered. Another free cup of beer is offered if there’s a line out the cafeteria. More beer is sold inside the cafeteria, and a storeroom accommodates winter coats and coolers. Nebraska politicians are known to make appearances at the event, which averages an attendance of 2,300 people per night. Fridays (5-8 p.m.), February 24 (pre-Lenten) to April 7

MARY OUR QUEEN CATHOLIC CHURCH (2017 Best of Omaha Winner)

3405 S. 118th St., Omaha, NE 68144 . 402.333.8662 . maryourqueenchurch.com

A packed line meanders through the halls of Mary Our Queen School, where intermittent refreshment tables allow visitors to replenish their beer pitchers/cups in one of Omaha’s most-popular Lenten fish fries. Young volunteers walk up and down the school’s hallway to collect emptied pitchers. Popcorn is available in the line near the cafeteria. A drive-through allows motorists to avoid the packed halls. Food options include: fried or baked fish, macaroni and cheese, spudsters, fries, coleslaw, bread, with assorted soft drinks and desserts also available for sale. Fridays (5-8 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

ST. PATRICK’S CHURCH OF ELKHORN (2017 Best of Omaha Winner)

20500 West Maple Road, Elkhorn, NE 68022 . 402.289.4289 . stpatselkhorn.org

The fish fry at St. Patrick’s features fried or baked catfish and/or pollock. Margaritas and a variety of beers offer a change of pace from the adult beverages typically available at area fish fries. Cheese pizza, fries, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and dessert round out the available food options. There’s a drive-through, and there are clowns and face-painting for the kids inside. Fridays (5-9:30 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

ST. VINCENT DE PAUL CATHOLIC CHURCH

14330 Eagle Run Drive, Omaha, NE 68164 . 402.496.7988 . svdpomaha.org

A cheerful and welcoming atmosphere radiates from the jam-packed line snaking through the halls of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School. The event features $3 cups, $8 bottles of wine, and $8 pitchers of Boulevard, Lucky Bucket, or Bud Light beer. For those seeking better quality beer on the cheap, St. Vincent de Paul’s fish fry is an excellent choice. Food options include fried or baked fish, cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and fries or baked potato, with assorted soft drinks and desserts also available for sale. Credit cards accepted. Fridays (5:30-8:30 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

ST. JOHN’S GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH

602 Park Ave., Omaha, NE 68105 . 402.345.7103 . stjohnsgreekorthodox.org

Alcohol is not sold at the event; however, St. John’s offers possibly the most delicious food available at any Omaha area Lenten fish fry. The church also offers historic tours of its Byzantine-style building from 5:30-6:30 p.m. A kitchen full of volunteers (some of whom grew up in Greece and migrated to the United States) cook and serve plaki—a Greek baked cod with Mediterranean sauce. Also available: panko-fried cod, breaded-fried shrimp, baked salmon, and vegetable moussaka (an eggplant lasagna), spanakopita (a pie filled with spinach and feta cheese), and piropita (cheese baked in phyllo dough). Specialty cheesecakes and baklava sundaes await at the dessert bar. Fridays (4:30 to 8 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

HOLY GHOST CATHOLIC CHURCH

5219 S. 53rd St., Omaha, NE 68117 . 402.731.3176 . holyghostomaha.com

Clam chowder is one of the unique offerings at Holy Ghost Parish’s annual Lenten fish fry. The varied menu offers: shrimp, baked or fried cod, macaroni and cheese, or a combo dinner. Each dinner comes with baked potato, salad, fruit bar, and a drink. Beer, margaritas, and “watermelons” (a mixed drink) are sold. While the line is long, the wait is neither the longest nor the most beer-soaked in town. Expedited takeout service is available at the west end of the church. Fridays (4-8 p.m.), February 24 (pre-Lenten) to April 7.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.