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Is Eating Fish Safe? A Lot Safer Than Not Eating Fish!


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This is going to be a long article and I know not everyone will have time to read it. So I’m going to summarize the key points right up front because I think this information is so important:


  • Selenium protects against mercury toxicity, and 16 of the 25 highest dietary sources of selenium are ocean fish
  • If a fish contains higher levels of selenium than mercury, it is safe to eat
  • Most species of commonly eaten fish in the U.S. have more selenium than mercury
  • Fish are not significant sources of PCBs and dioxins when compared to meat, dairy or vegetables
  • The benefits of eating fish regularly far outweigh the potential risks, which are negligible
  • Pregnant mothers and young children should eat 2-3 servings of oily ocean fish each week

These days a lot of people are scared to eat fish. They’ve been told that fish are full of contaminants like mercury, PCBs and dioxins that cause neurological problems and may increase the risk of cancer. Pregnant women have been especially warned due to the supposed risk of these toxins to the developing fetus.

In the last few articles I’ve established the importance of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in human health. I’ve argued that the conversion of plant-based omega-3 fats like ALA into the longer chain EPA and DHA is extremely poor in most people.

The conclusion is obvious: fish should be a part of our diet. But is it safe to eat fish?

You might be surprised to learn that the answer is a resounding yes. In this article I’ll demonstrate that concerns about toxins in fish have been overblown, and that there is almost no risk associated with eating fish when a few simple precautions are taken.

The selenium story

Although people are increasingly concerned about the effects of mercury levels in fish, recent evidence suggests that the trace amounts of mercury in the fish Americans eat aren’t high enough to pose a health risk.

But measuring only mercury significantly exaggerates this risk, because it ignores the important role of selenium.

Selenium is plentiful in many ocean fish species, but the public is unaware of its protective role against mercury. Selenium has high binding affinity for mercury. This means that when the two elements are found together, they connect, forming a new substance.

This new substance makes it hard for the body to absorb the mercury separately. Simply put, when selenium binds to mercury, mercury is not longer free to bind to anything else – like brain tissue.

Studies have shown that relevant amounts of selenium (Se) can prevent oxidative brain damage and other adverse effects associated with mercury toxicity. (PDF)

University of North Dakota researcher Nicholas Ralston has published several papers on the protective effects of selenium. He describes the relationship between selenium and mercury as follows:

Think of dietary selenium as if it were your income and dietary mercury as if it were a bill that you need to pay. Just as we all need a certain amount of money to cover living expenses such as food and rent, we all need a certain amount of selenium.

And guess what foods are highest in selenium? You’re right! 16 of the 25 best sources of dietary selenium are ocean fish.

He goes on:

Only one major study has shown negative effects from exposure to mercury from seafood, and that seafood was pilot whale meat. Pilot whale meat is unusual in that it contains more mercury than selenium. When you eat pilot whale meat it’s like getting a bill for $400 and a check for less than $100. If that happens too much, you go bankrupt. On the other hand, if you eat ocean fish, it’s like getting a check in the mail for $500 and getting a bill for $25. The more that happens, the happier you are.

What Ralston is telling us is that as long as the fish we’re eating has more selenium than mercury, there’s nothing to worry about.

Fortunately, studies by several independent organizations have consistently shown that most of the fish we eat contain significantly more selenium than mercury. Fish that contain more mercury than selenium include pilot whale, tarpon, marlin, swordfish and some shark.

The following chart illustrates the relative levels of selenium and mercury in commonly eaten ocean fish:

The selenium health benefit value (SeHBV)

Researchers have proposed a new measure of seafood safety called the Selenium Health Benefit Value (SeHBV) that takes the protective role of selenium into account.

Fish with a positive (above zero) SeHBV ratio would be safe to eat, whereas fish with a negative ratio would be unsafe. Using these criteria, most varieties of ocean fish have positive SeHBV ratios and are thus safe to eat.

A study conducted by the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also found that an estimated 97% of the freshwater fish from lakes and rivers in the western U.S. are safe to eat. It is the only study I’m aware of that has measured both mercury and selenium levels in the tissues of freshwater fish. 1

So how much fish is safe to eat?

The joint recommendation for fish consumption of the EPA and FDA as of 2004 is as follows:

  • Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of commonly eaten fish and shellfish found consistently low in mercury, including shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish
  • Limit albacore tuna to 6 oz. per week
  • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury

Notice that these recommendations are already quite liberal compared to the fish-phobes who suggest we avoid fish entirely.

But even these recommendations are too strict, because they don’t take the protective effects of selenium into account. As long as the fish is higher in selenium than it is in mercury, there’s no reason to limit consumption to 12 ounces per week.

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What about dioxins and PCBs?

PCBs are synthetic organochlorine compounds previously used in industrial and commercial processes. Dioxins are organochlorine by-products of waste incineration, paper bleaching, pesticide production, and production of certain plastics. Yummy!

While it makes perfect sense to try to avoid these toxins to the greatest extent possible, abstaining from fish isn’t a particularly good strategy.

The highest dietary sources of PCBs and dioxins are not fish, but beef, chicken and pork (34%), dairy products (30%) and vegetables (22%). Fish constitute only 9% of our dietary intake of these chemicals.

The primary concern with PCBs and dioxins is cancer. Animal studies and some evidence in humans suggest that both are carcinogenic.

However, an analysis has shown that, per 100,000 individuals, consumption of farmed vs. wild salmon would result in 24 vs. 8 excess cancer deaths, respectively, while consumption of either farmed or wild salmon would result in 7,125 fewer coronary heart disease (CHD) deaths.

Another analysis of the same data suggested that, for all ages evaluated (25-35 to 85 years), CHD benefits outweighed cancer risks by 100- to 370-fold for farmed salmon and by 300- to more than 1000-fold for wild salmon.

It’s important to note that the benefits of fish consumption are based on prospective studies and randomized trials in humans, whereas estimated cancer risks include a 10-fold safety factor and are based on experimental data in animals and limited studies in humans at extremely high doses.

Cancer estimates also assumed lifetime salmon consumption of 1,000 mg/d of EPA & DHA (four 6-oz servings of wild salmon every week for 70 years). Of course virtually nobody in the U.S. currently eats this much salmon.

On the other hand, CHD mortality reduction may be achieved with lower intake (i.e. 250 mg/d – one 6-oz. wild salmon serving per week). At this intake, CHD benefits would be the same (7,125 fewer deaths) while lifetime cancer risk would decrease by 75% (6 and 2 estimated deaths per 100,000 for farmed and wild salmon respectively). The CHD benefits would outweigh cancer risks by more than 3500-fold in the case of wild salmon.

Once again, with few exceptions (the species of fish with more mercury than selenium), it’s not only safe but incredibly beneficial to eat fish regularly.

How beneficial? Let’s find out.

Fish consumption, cardiovascular disease and total mortality

In 2006 Mozaffarian & Rimm published a paper in JAMA called “Fish Intake, Contaminants and Human Health: Evaluating the Risks and Benefits“. They analyzed several studies that examined the impact of fish consumption on both coronary and total mortality. They found that modest fish consumption (e.g. 1-2 servings/wk) – especially of oily fish higher in EPA and DHA – reduced the risk of coronary death by 36% and total mortality by 17%, and may favorably affect other clinical outcomes.

The authors summarized their findings this way:

For major health outcomes among adults, based on the strength of the evidence and the potential magnitudes of effect, the benefits of fish exceed the potential risks.


For women of childbearing age, benefits of modest fish intake, excepting a few selected species, also outweigh risks.

They also pointed out that the Japanese eat 900 mg/d of EPA & DHA on average, and have death rates from coronary heart disease 87% lower than those in Western populations (like the U.S.).

If you’re interested in learning more about this study, I recommend listening to the JAMA Audio in the Room interview with its lead author, Mozaffarian.

Fish consumption, pregnant mothers, and children

DHA is essential for proper development of the brain. It is preferentially incorporated into the rapidly developing brain during gestation and the first two years of infancy, concentrating in the gray matter and retinal membranes.

In a meta-analysis of 14 trials, DHA supplementation improved visual acuity in a dose dependent manner. In another trial of 341 pregnant women, treatment with cod liver oil from week 18 until 3 months postpartum raised mental processing scores at age 4 years.

This is consistent with observational studies showing positive associations between maternal DHA levels or fish intake during pregnancy and behavioral attention scores, visual recognition, memory, and language comprehension in infancy.

An FDA report issued in 2008 noted that the nutrients in fish – especially n-3 LCFAs, selenium, and vitamin D – could boost a child’s IQ by an estimated ten points. 2

The FDA report summarizes evidence suggesting that the greatest benefits to children would result if pregnant women of childbearing age, nursing mothers and young children ate more than the 12 ounces of fish per week currently recommended by the EPA.

According to the National Fisheries Institute, Americans currently consume only five ounces a week of fish high in n-3 LCFA, which is less than half the recommended amount. The NFI also estimates that up to 14 percent of women of childbearing age eat no fish at all, despite the fact that n-3 LCFA are essential to proper fetal brain and eye development.

Based on the new understanding of selenium’s protective role, and the importance of DHA for fetal and early childhood development, pregnant mothers should be advised to eat oily ocean fish regularly.

Fish consumption and autoimmune and inflammatory disease

The first evidence of the significant role of dietary intake of n-3 LCFA in reducing inflammation came from epidemiological observations of the low incidence of autoimmune and inflammatory disorders in a population of Greenland Eskimos compared with gender- and age-matched groups living in Denmark. The Eskimos in this study had dramatically lower rates of psoriasis, asthma and type 1 diabetes, as well as a complete absence of multiple sclerosis.

Animal and human studies suggest that n-3 LCFA suppresses cell mediated immune responses. Increasing the amount of n-3 LCFA while decreasing omega-6 fatty acids leads to improvements and a decrease of steroid use in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

This is because omega-3s have been shown to suppress the capacity of monocytes to synthesize interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). IL-1 and TNF are the principal mediators of mediation in several different inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.


This is simply a re-cap of the overview presented at the beginning of the article. But it’s worth repeating.

  • Selenium protects against mercury toxicity, and 16 of the 25 highest dietary sources of selenium are ocean fish
  • If a fish contains higher levels of selenium than mercury, it is safe to eat
  • Most species of commonly eaten fish in the U.S. have more selenium than mercury
  • Fish are not significant sources of PCBs and dioxins when compared to meat, dairy or vegetables
  • The benefits of eating fish regularly far outweigh the potential risks, which are neglible
  • Pregnant mothers and young children should eat 2-3 servings of oily ocean fish each week
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  1. Energy & Environmental Research Center, University of North Dakota (EERC). EERC Research Finds Mercury Levels in Freshwater and Ocean Fish Not as Harmful as Previously Thought. June 22, 2009. Accessed at http://www.undeerc.org/news/newsitem.aspx?id=343
  2. Energy & Environmental Research Center, University of North Dakota (EERC). EERC Research Finds Mercury Levels in Freshwater and Ocean Fish Not as Harmful as Previously Thought. June 22, 2009. Accessed at http://www.undeerc.org/news/newsitem.aspx?id=343
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Join the conversation

  1. So exactly which fish should I consume to reduce inflammation and how much per day?

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the information in this article. Very helpful! Just curious about one thing…I am considering making fish stock from the heads and bones of fish, as I read that this would be a great source of iodine and other minerals. Hoping to boost a sluggish thyroid. I am able to get heads and bones from a local (New England) fish monger for making the broth, but I wonder about whether this would be a healthy choice, given the presence of some toxins in the fish. More specifically, I wonder if a daily cup of homemade fish stock is excessive exposure, if the toxins are concentrated in any way by slowly simmering the fish heads and bones making broth more toxic than the meat of the fish itself, and whether toxins accumulate more in the thyroid, brains, etc. of the fish as they do in the fat of the fish. Any thoughts you might have on the overall safety of fish stock would be much appreciated!


    Sorry, but I read the original article about PCBs and Dioxins in the american diet that you quoted in your article (INTAKE OF DIOXINS AND RELATED COMPOUNDS FROM FOOD IN THE U.S. POPULATION), and there’s something that needs urgent correction. You quoted that “The highest dietary sources of PCBs and dioxins are not fish, but beef, chicken and pork (34%), dairy products (30%) and vegetables (22%). Fish constitute only 9% of our dietary intake of these chemicals.” The information is not wrong, but is incomplete and could be misunderstood by the readers.
    The question is “why fish contributes only with 9% of ingestion of PCBs in the american diet?”. And the autors of the study gave the answer: “The share of TEQ contributed by fish is smaller than previous estimates, because fish is consumed in smaller quantities in the United States than in many other countries.” / Obs: TEQ = dioxin toxic equivalent
    So, IS NOT BECAUSE THE FISH IS A SAFE SOURCE!!!! By the way, the same study puts freshwater fish as the HIGHEST source of PCBs (1.7 TEQ ppt), and even the seafish is higher than chicken, and as bad as beef and pork (0.39 TEQ ppt) !!!!!!

    “Freshwater fish were found to have the highest wet weight dioxin toxicity, with 1.7 ppt TEQ, followed by butter with 1.1 ppt. Ocean fish, meat, poultry, sandwich meats, eggs, cheese, and milk desserts, as well as human milk, were found to have wet weight dioxin TEQ contamination in the range of 0.33 to 0.51 ppt.”

    And as the study shows, the safer food group are the vegetables, with only 0.01 TEQ ppt (ND=0) and 0.09 TEQ ppt (ND=1/2):

    “The food category with highest World Health Organization (WHO) dioxin toxic equivalent (TEQ) concentration was farm-grown freshwater fish fillet with 1.7 pg/g, or parts per trillion (ppt), wet, or whole, weight. The category with the lowest TEQ level was a simulated vegan diet, with 0.09 ppt.”

    By the way, when the same study shows that vegetables contribute with 22% of the PCBs/Dioxin intake is just because this group (fruits, grains, leaves, tubers, roots, etc) is the major part of our meal. Thus, in a vegan diet vegetables will contribute with 100% of the PCBs/Dioxin intake because vegans only eat vegetables. So is clear to see that this number percentage alone means nothing.

    Well, you don’t need to trust me, just read the original article by yourself: http://www.ejnet.org/dioxin/dioxininfood.pdf)

    Bottom line: fish is healthy when you think about omega 3, but YES, It is a very important source of PCBs and Dioxins.
    Best regards,

    • Daniel, so are u saying that a vegan diet is healthiest and the least toxic way to eat?

      • Well, not me. Who are saying that vegetables have less PCBs and dioxins than the other food groups are the autors of the same article that was quoted by Cris. But this make sense, since the vegetables are at the bottom of the food chain.
        But in my opinion, being a vegan is not enough to garantee a healthy diet. You could be a vegan and just eat french fries all day long and drink soft drinks. Well, definitly that is not healthy.
        So we need to choose well what to eat (e.g., organic food, Brassica vegetables, nuts, all kinds of berries), and use the heathiest ways to mix and prepare the food. And we should not forget about daily exercises and, if you are a vegan, the B12 vitamin supplement.
        By the way, I’m not a vegan because once in a while I eat cheese (organic if available) and fish (the less contaminated varieties), but is rare. In the other hand, I never eat red meat or junk food and never drink soda.
        Best regards!

        • Thanks daniel… u seem to know a lot about nutrition. if I may be nosey, what is your diet like on a typical day (meal by meal)?

      • vegan is absolutely worst thing any human can do….i know from personal experience. Its flat out dangerous and detrimental to your health. Humans need high fat and protein from animals – period. And there is plenty of historical documentation to prove it.

  4. Whew! What a relief to learn about the selenium connection. For what it is worth: I have been eating tuna sandwiches practically every day for over 50 years. I never grow tired of the taste and texture of a tuna sandwhich. I have also been consuming mostly wild salmon and tilapia for dinner a couple of times a week. That’s alot of fish consumption! I am a healthy 61 year old man. My mental faculties are completely normal. If one believed the scare tactics regarding fish/mercury consumption I would have been committed to a mental facility long ago with the amount of fish I have consumed over the decades.

    • Craig, it really depends on ur methylation status. Looks like u are able to detox metals properly, whereas other people might not be as lucky. It also depends on genetics/snps. But, i agree that this tends to be overblown. How do these levels in fish compare to other foods? How does the arsenic in rice compare to other foods? And, most importantly, how absorbable are these toxins?

      It also depends on what the rest of ur diet is like too

  5. Hi Chris,

    Great post!

    Two questions:

    1 Looking at it from the respective levels of nutrients and toxins is there a meaningful difference between wild and wild-caught fish?

    2 What are your thoughts on BPA-free canned fish or glass-jarred fish as opposed to fresh fish?
    I live in Taiwan and we have a great selection of local seafood, but I am suspcious of the amount of pollution in the surrounding waters and the fish here are generally sub-tropical and so not very fatty. I was thinking about purchasing some Wild Planet sardines and some various Crown Prince seafood products to compliment the local seafood I eat.

  6. Hi Chris,

    Could you comment on the difference between wild and wild-caught fish. I would like to know if you have any information on the differences in nutrients and toxins.

  7. Hi there nice article and very helpful, I’ve been reading to many articles who not saying the same thing and it’s getting confusing. I don’t know to much about fish since I’ve never eaten to much of it before, but been a vegetarian for almost a year I’ve decided to change to a pescetarian because i had to take some vitamins supplement and Omega 3 supp also. I went to a fishmarket because i like to buy fresh and since I didn’t know to much about fish the only thing I eat is salmon, shrimps, crab, lobster and talipia or sole. Since she didn’t carry any talipia or sole she recommended the ORANGE ROUGHY and I’ve notice in the research that I made when i got home that it was a species who were very HIGH in MERCURY, so now I’m not sure if I should eat it or not. I guess she didn’t know the species about it’s high mercury content, that she only knew that it was a species from New Zealand and Australia. I will really appreciate if you can help me about the Orange Roughy fish that I just bought if it’s okay to eat or it’s risky. I will never buy this kind again but i don’t want to trow it away. Thanks.

  8. How much fish is ok to eat a day and week?

    Which fish are ok and is tongal or yellow jack tuna ok, which are said to be low mercury tuna (can these be eaten once a day??

  9. I stopped eating fish as soon as the Fukushima disaster occurred, and I was eating it every day prior and experiencing dramatic health benefits. Why avoid the topic? I’ve noticed other practitioners with popular websites ignoring it also. I think we all see the elephant standing in the room. Why not address it?

  10. The Article is very informative.
    In Homoeopathy, Selenium is one of the great medicine, which is used for Prostetorrhoea, Constipation, Loss of weight, — . About 2000 symptoms covers Selenium. This article is very good to about Selenium and its sources as well as different views of readers.
    Many Thanks esp. to Chris Kresser and all commentators.

  11. Hi Chris,

    I’ve followed with interest your articles concerning eating fish and the issue of Mercury toxicity.

    Have you read this study in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology Volume 2012 (2012), Article ID 681016?

    A French research team sought to determine whether mercury from fish is less harmful than other dietary mercury, and whether beneficial nutriments from fish might counterbalance the deleterious effects of fish-associated mercury.

    Mice were fed one of three diets:

    Fish-based methylmercury diet: A diet that included fishmeal produced from fish containing five micrograms of methylmercury contamination per gram.

    Added methylmercury diet: A special diet higher in DHA and EPA, with added methylmercury chloride (considered more toxic than fish-associated methylmercury) also totaling five mcg/g.

    Control diet without mercury
    Apart from mercury and selenium content, the three diets were comparable. Only the fish group suffered significant behavioral abnormalities at the end of 58 days.

    The authors concluded:

    “The two mercury-containing diets are differing by the fact that mercury was brought by the addition of either pure methylmercury chloride or by mercurial species associated to fish. Therefore, any differential effects observed between MeHg-containing and fish-containing diets should be attributed to different chemical species of mercury present in one diet and absent from the other and vice-versa along with the possible intervening role of fish PUFA and selenium.

    If the beneficial role of fish nutrients such as PUFA and selenium was to counteract MeHg effects, the pattern of effects displayed after exposure to the fish-containing diet should appear less severe than that observed with the MeHg-containing diet. But in the present study, the mice fed the fish-containing diet displayed worse behavioral performances than those fed the control and the MeHg-containing diets, although the brain structures of both mercury-contaminated groups of mice contained comparable levels of mercury and even less in the striatum of those fed the fish diet.

    Therefore, the different chemical species of mercury within fish flesh are likely to explain the deficit in cognitive performance in the Y maze and the decreased locomotory activity in the open-field maze.”

    I’m not a big fan of extrapolating from mice to humans but I’d like to hear what you think of these results.


  12. Check out this article from SuppVersity before consuming any more fish:


    Additionally, the tests showing radioactive isotopes in fish — and the sparse (or lack) of safety testing — makes fish consumption a very risky proposition.

    • Those studies are problematic; I will be addressing them and discussing this topic again soon.

  13. Thanks for the great article! I’ll be sharing this is one of my articles of the week over on Kevin’s Trek…love your work in general, keep it up!

  14. Great article! However why does know one seem concerned about the contamination that’s STILL going into the ocean from Fukushima and its effects on seafood????

    It’s not like the fish just stay near Japan. Obviously they swim throughout the pacific. I’d really love your thought on that Chris.

  15. Chris sorry if this has been covered before but I’m new to your site and haven’t had a chance to fully dive into all your great material.

    My dad doesn’t eat fish anymore. Basically he believes you will get sick if you eat anything from the Gulf because of the oil spill and anything from the Pacific because of the Nuclear Plant problems in Japan and all the “radiation soaked garbage” from the earthquake making its way to the west coast waters. Also radiation in the air coming over.

    To me I have trouble subscribing to this. I think if it were actually a problem we’d know not to eat fish….but alas, I don’t eat fish either. In my mind things are probably fine, but I like to get my information from sources I trust so I can better make a decision.

    Do you have any opinion on this? Are there websites/people you can point me to that would be able to give me something to tell my dad and restore his faith in fish (something he ate often his whole life)?

    Or is what he hears right? Should we be sticking to the Atlantic Ocean and fresh water fish?



    • I have the exact same fears. I wish I could get some information that pacific fish is safe to eat for young children.

  16. what if your allergic to fish? I recently had a lab done with an said I was deficient in EFA. I take Noridic Naturals EFA’s, and I’m still deficient. Is this because I need to eat fish too? The issue is I’m allergic to shell fish.

    • If you’re only allergic to shellfish, you could eat salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines to get your EPA/DHA. Another option if you’re allergic to all fish is taking marine algae (which is where the fish get their DHA).

  17. Chris, Interesting, informative article but you don’t mention anything about purines. Sardines have very high purine levels up to 1,000 mg per 3.5 ounce serving. You mention “there’s no reason to limit (fish) consumption to 12 ounces per week”, but what about the problems with purines mentioned here in studies like this:

    Choi, H. K., K. Atkinson, E. W. Karlson, W. Willett, and G. Curhan. “Purine-Rich Foods, Dairy and Protein Intake, and the Risk of Gout in Men.” N Engl J Med. 2004 350(11): 1093-103.

    Choi, H. K., S. Liu, and G. Curhan. “Intake of Purine-Rich Foods, Protein, and Dairy Products and Relationship to Serum Levels of Uric Acid: the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.” Arthritis Rheum. (2005). 52(1): 283-9.


  18. Chris – Do you think that pregnant/trying-to-conceive/breastfeeing women need to worry about mercury or do you think that the rest of this article also applies to these women? You recommend oily fish, but what about the others? Thanks in advance and I love reading your work.

  19. Chris, is shellfish included in this information? When you recommend 2-3 servings of oily ocean fish per week for pregnant mothers and children, am I assuming you’re not including low mercury shellfish like shrimp, bay scallops and oysters in this? Thanks in advance!

  20. I understand that fish, cold water, fatty, ocean fish is good for us. But what about all those hunter-gatherer people–which we all were before agriculture–that didn’t live near the ocean, didn’t eat much if any fish, yet were quite healthy. The Masai comes to mind, as well as the North American Plains Indians, and the Koi San of South Africa.

    • Did the North American Plains Indians not eat freshwater fish? They do have many of the benefits of ocean fish though not to as much extent. Also I’ve heard insects provide some of the same benefits as fish…could that be something they eat?