Can I Eat Fish Out of a Lake During an Algal Bloom?

The algal bloom admittedly made it difficult to catch some fish, but you reeled in a few great ones that you’re eager to eat. Then again, because of the algae, you don’t know how palatable the fish are. Can you eat fish that came out of a lake during an algal bloom?

Eating fish out of a lake during an algal bloom is not the wisest idea. Although no one is known to have gotten sick from it (yet), toxins from algae can build up in a fish’s tissue and internal organs, which could be dangerous for human consumption.

You probably have many more questions about whether you can eat fish caught in a lake during an algal bloom. Well, worry not, as we’ve got the answers, so make sure you keep reading! You won’t want to miss it. 

What Is an Algal Bloom Anyway?

Okay, so the first thing is first. When we mention an algal bloom, exactly what are we talking about?

An algae bloom or algal bloom occurs when cyanobacteria accumulate rapidly in the water. These blooms can occur in marine water or freshwater.

The pigment from the algae in such large numbers will tint the top layer of the water. Sometimes the color will be a sickening green hue, and other times the hue is a deep, rich blue. And then there is your golden algae from prymnesium parvum bacteria.

Table showing the difference between blue-green algae and golden algae. eating fish out of a lake with a algae bloom.

Algal blooms don’t merely happen. Nutrient pollution or fertilizer runoff (as well as other causes) can deposit large amounts of phosphorus and/or nitrogen into the water. These nutrients foster algal growth.

When an algal bloom occurs, the ecosystem that lives beneath the bloom is affected, from the biggest creatures down to the smallest ones. 

The bloom prevents sunlight from filtering through the water and thus can lower the water’s oxygen levels.

In some cases, an algal bloom can even release toxins into the lake or other bodies of water. 

These harmful algal blooms, as they’re known, can kill fish. The local water supply can be impacted as well.

Most anglers who fish in an algal bloom will do so during a cyanobacterial bloom when blue-green algae spread.

You can tell that your favorite lake has a blue-green algal bloom because the color will be a mix of those two shades.

Before we get into if it’s safe to eat fish you’ve caught, check out our other article, “Can I Fish in a Lake During an Algae Bloom?”

Is It Safe to Eat Fish Out of a Lake During an Algal Bloom?

Now that you better grasp what an algal bloom is, that brings us back to your main question. Can you eat fish from a lake you caught during an algal bloom?

We’re not going to lie, it’s a risk.

Some fish species carry a heavier level of toxin risk than others. For instance, steelhead, salmon, and other anadromous fish don’t spend long enough in freshwaters from saltwater to build up toxins at a very high level.

Fish that have spent their entire lives in freshwater do. 

According to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, no one has reported getting ill from eating fish caught during an algal bloom. 

However, the lack of research in this area on what consuming fish can do to human health does mean that you’re taking a chance. 

After all, the algal bloom in your nearby lake could be a harmful algal bloom, which means that toxins might have seeped into the water. 

Further, evidence has shown that certain algae toxins can enter a fish internally. There, the toxins may linger in the kidneys or liver as well as in the fish’s tissue.

Are these exactly common fish parts for the average person to consume? 

Well, a fish’s fillet tissue or muscle is one of the most sought-after, but no other tissue is.

The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife does note that, according to research, that fish fillet tissue “is less affected by algae toxins.”

So what does that mean? The fillet tissue may have algal toxins, and it may not. It’s a crapshoot.

Just because no one has reported getting sick from eating fish caught from a lake or algal bloom doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened or couldn’t happen.

Perhaps a person who got sick from algae toxins chalked it up to food poisoning rather than the algal bloom. 

Maybe they didn’t know the proper reporting authority, so they just didn’t report the incident. It’s hard to say for certain.

Thus, we must again remind you that while you can eat fish from a lake during an algal bloom if you want to, you are doing so at your own risk and at risk of anyone else consuming the fish with you. 

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How to Prepare a Fish to Eat That You Caught During an Algal Bloom

You’ve thought about it a lot, and the fish you caught from the lake–algal bloom or not–is just too tantalizing to pass up. You want to cook it! 

Here are some preparation and cooking tips to guide you.

Wear Gloves When Handling the Fish

You can’t know for sure if a fish you caught out of a green-blue algal bloom is toxic, so it’s best to treat all fish like they could be and take the proper precautions.

You should always wear protective rubber gloves when you go to de-skin and de-bone the fish. You don’t want the fish to make direct contact with your skin. 

You Can Leave the Skin on If You Wish

While many people will de-skin a fish as part of preparing it, not all anglers do. 

Fish skin is a good source of vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein. 

When the skin is healthy, it could provide various benefits to humans, including healthier skin, better heart health, and even more muscle growth. 

Fortunately, all research on the effects of algal blooms on fish has reached the same consensus. 

Whether you remove the skin of a fish before cooking, it doesn’t make the fish inherently more toxic. 

You can smoke a skin-on fish, cook it, or prepare it however you like without worrying about it more than a skinless fish from an algal bloom. 

Clean the Fillets Before Cooking

Although we hope you’d do this anyway, whenever you prepare fish fillets, you should rinse them off ahead of cooking them. 

All you need is a little water for this, and any contaminants on the fillet should be gone. 

Don’t Cut into the Organs When Preparing Fish

Of course, before you can get to the fillets, you need to slice through the organs, fat, and (optionally) the skin. 

As you do this, handle your knife especially carefully around the organs, taking special care to avoid cutting into them. 

If you slice into the organs, you could expose the rest of the fish to algal bloom toxins within. That could contaminate previously clean portions of the fish, such as the skin and fillets. 

How Many Fish from Algal Blooms Can You Eat?

You brought in a big haul when you fished during the latest algal bloom. Your lake was just teeming with fish that day.

You want to eat possibly more than one of the fish you caught, but now that you know that the algae could be toxic, you’re not sure how you should proceed, if at all. 

If you limit consumption to no more than two meals of fish exposed to a blue-green algal bloom each week, then you should be okay.

If you exceed that limit, you could risk accumulating toxins within your system.

While it’s unclear what the effects on human health would look like since research hasn’t given us that information, we can only guess. 

You could potentially end up with neurological or liver damage, but this would take eating a lot of algal bloom fish over a long period. Keep in mind as well that this is just conjecture.

Final Thoughts

While fishing in an algal bloom is one thing, eating the fish you caught in a lake during an algal bloom is another matter entirely.

You are taking your health into your own hands when you eat fish from an algal bloom. Just because there haven’t been any reported instances of illness doesn’t mean that the fish couldn’t contain toxins. 

The levels just may not be high enough to adversely affect your health, especially if you limit your consumption. 

We hope this post serves as food for thought the next time you catch fish from a lake during an algal bloom! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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