Have you ever caught a “textbook fish?” They’re the ones that exemplify the species—perfect in every way. The perfect brown trout, as an example, is often portrayed as a mature male with a crisp hook jaw. The fish has blue accents on its cheeks; the black speckles on its body are seemingly innumerable, and the red spots mixed in really pop. There’s not a fray on any fin, and its deep copper-brown back fades perfectly into vivid gold flanks. A textbook version exists for almost every gamefish, and catching one is a badge of honor. The reality, however, is that most fish don’t meet that classification. Their appearance can vary for any number of reasons, and many of these reasons instantly cause alarm.
“Albino” Chain Pickerel Caught in Vermont
Not long ago, an oddball chain pickerel began making rounds on the internet. According to the story on Thestate.com, the fish was pulled through the ice on Sabin Pond in Central Vermont. The headline read: “Ugly Fish Caught in Vermont Pond Ignites Debate. ‘Like It Came Out of An Acid Bath.’” At first glance, an acid bath doesn’t seem out of the question.
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Looking at the pickerel from the top down, you might assume it’s an albino. From the tip of its nose to the tail, the scales are predominantly white. Here and there, splotchy patches of gray mix with small areas of goldfish orange. This bizarre coloration continues down the fish’s side, but abruptly ends near the belly where the natural green and gold coloration dominates the underside of the pickerel. In these areas of natural coloration, it even maintained its bright chain pattern. It appears as though the pickerel has been scalded, and when the photo was shared on Fish Vermont Facebook’s page, some commentors speculated that it was a hybrid species while others believed it was a “mutant born of water contamination.”
Having grown up fishing in New Jersey, I’m no stranger to getting my chops busted about contaminated fish. Outsiders assume that eating a fish caught within eyeshot of New York City will make you glow and a fish caught near any warm-water discharge will give you instant cancer. There are, in fact, a few rivers in my home state from which I wouldn’t eat any of the freshwater fish I catch. However, that has nothing to do with catching fish in them that look off. It’s simply a matter of knowing the history of ground contamination in the area and understanding that a lot of treated wastewater ends up in the river. The reality is that you are more likely to have adverse effects from eating a fish with issues you can’t see.
Leucism vs. Melanosis in Fish (And Are They Safe to Eat?)
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources quickly jumped in to dispel any worry about the pickerel. It’s not a hybrid, nor an albino, as true albinism would have given it lighter eyes. It simply suffered from leucism, a fairly common pigment condition that can create white patches on a variety of animals. The pickerel would have been perfectly safe to consume. Likewise, if you ever catch largemouth covered in funky black spots, don’t freak out.
Melanosis in bass is one of the most common skin afflictions in any gamefish. It can occur in fish in any climate, and severe cases can be rather jarring. The jet-black blotches can vary from smaller than a dime to covering fish’s entire head. Until the condition was identified, these marred fish popped up in online forums frequently and there was no shortage of folks calling them “zombie bass” and sharing their concerns over disease. What many overlooked, however, was that bass with melanosis rarely appeared unhealthy beyond the spots, and that was because the skin condition didn’t create other adverse effects nor was it a sign of a bigger issue.
Melanosis is a cellular deformity, not a disease. This means it cannot be transferred to you nor other fish in your live well. Furthermore, biologists have determined that it’s most often caused by stress. Yes, this stress could be a result of poor water quality, but it’s been observed in everything from major rivers like the Susquehanna with histories of pollution issues to private ponds and lakes with outstanding water quality. The bottom line is, conditions like leucism and melanosis are not indicators of pending doom to the entire population of fish—nor of a pending trip to the ER if you throw one on the grill. Of course, we eat with our eyes first, so I certainly understand the trepidation.
Worms and Toxins in Fish
I catch a lot of channel catfish in the Delaware River, which is the cleanest it’s been in history. Still, I’ll occasionally catch a cat with what appear to be tumors and odd growths under the skin. Even though it’s been well documented that these tumors are usual viral, are found in catfish in a wide range of water qualities, often go away, and are not linked to cancer, I can’t bring myself to turn one into catfish McNuggets.
What scares me more are ciguatera poisoning and anisakiasis. Ciguatera toxin is found in certain algae that live on coral reefs and it gets in you by way of the food chain. Tiny organisms eat the algae, bigger organisms eat the tiny ones, and so on. Species like barracuda are known to build up lots of ciguatera in their systems, but it can also be found in more commonly consumed targets like snapper and grouper. Anisakiasis is a parasitic worm infection from eating raw or undercooked fish containing nematode larvae. With either affliction, you won’t likely end up dead—but you might wish you were from the discomfort and potential worm removal procedure you have to endure.
So, why do those two issues worry me so much? Because neither one of them alters the appearance of the fish, its flesh, or its odor. I’d have no idea the yellowtail snapper I just brought from the boat to that Florida Keys restaurant is chock full of ciguatera, and every time there’s a fresh yellowfin tuna on ice, I convince myself not to worry about worms and can’t break out the soy sauce fast enough when we get back to the dock.