Hmong subsistence fishers bypass advisories for tradition

By Rachael Lallensack and Danny McKay

In Hmong communities, fishing isn’t just means for subsistence, it’s a statement of manhood.

“Coming from that kind of background, it’s pretty much ingrained in you as a man in the home community,” Addison Lee, President of the Hmong American Sportsmen Club of Sheboygan County, said. “If you don’t hunt or fish or do both, then you’re pretty much not considered a man.”

Advisories against fish consumption are common, but fair warning gets lost in translation when language barriers prevent subsistence fishers from taking heed of them.

Fishing is deeply rooted in Hmong cultures. The tradition was brought over from their mother countries of Laos and Thailand. There, fishing is essentially a “need or necessity,” Lee said.

Historically, Hmong immigrants settled largely in La Crosse, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau, and Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. The main When families immigrated to the United States, the traditions travelled with them. Lee said this is especially true for older generations. He said his parents always fished and continued to do so when they arrived here. Today, it’s still an inclusive community-wide affair for all ages.

“Once someone hears that fish are biting it pretty much spreads like wildfire by word of mouth and potentially every family that wants to eat fish will come out and catch them,” Lee said.

Lake Kegnosa


People from the “baby boomer” generation consume the most fish in the Hmong “home communities,” as Lee called areas of the Sheboygan with mainly immigrants living in them. Older and younger generations differ in consumption habits, Lee said. Younger generations tend toward fishing recreationally, he said.

However since older residents have the poorest English speakers, advisories often go ignored. As they are the most frequent Hmong fishers, this could be problematic.

“That’s actually a really big concern in the home community because a lot of times there’s a sign there, but because of lack of English skills for the older generation, they just continue fishing and consuming what they can,” Lee said.

Candy Schrank, an environmental toxicologist for the Department of Natural Resources, said most people–not exclusively Hmong–eat very little amounts of fish. Using surveys, they found that most people in Wisconsin don’t even eat one meal a week. However, the department faces a problem in tracking down or simply identifying which populations eat more fish.

“It’s up to that person to kind of seek out the information,” Schrank said. “We do provide the advisory information and fishing brochures and we have our website, we have press releases and materials available, but it’s kind of up to the person to be in touch to some degree.”

The type of fish advisories that Hmong consumers deal with primarily are high levels of mercury and PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls levels. The two contaminants are not typically associated with each other, have entirely different uses and affect people’s health differently.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but is also produced as a result of coal burning at power plants or when some factories improperly dispose of products containing mercury, according to the DNR website. PCB, on the other hand, is the name given to a certain group of manmade chemicals, according to the site. These are used in several different industries, for example, electrical transformers or some kinds of copy paper.

Both chemicals pose environmental issues because they can exist in nature for a long time. Mercury can get deposited in water after “getting mobilized” in the atmosphere, Schrank said. Once absorbed by fish and other aquatic species it changes to methylmercury and remains in their fat, according to the site. PCBs, because they are man-made, are resistant to natural breakdown. They, too, remain in the fatty tissue of water creatures for extended periods.

People who infrequently eat fish with high levels of mercury aren’t automatically in danger, as the body can slowly reduce mercury levels over time. Schrank said mercury levels can usually drop in just months.

However, PCBs, because they are man-made, are resistant to natural breakdown. They remain in the fatty tissue of fish and the people who eat them for extended periods, sometimes many years.

When people repeatedly consume fish containing high-levels of mercury, it can seriously affect the health of their brain and nervous system. Scientific studies show especially detrimental effects in pregnant women or women of childbearing age.

The studies analyzed children whose mothers consumed high levels of mercury during pregnancy. They focused on the effects that had on developmental deficits, like ability to learn, ability to pay attention, ability to kind of look at things spatially and process them, Schrank said. They found limiting mercury consumption protected offspring against such problems, she said.

The DNR website suggests women who may become pregnant, recently pregnant mothers and children consume only one meal a week of bluegill, crappies, yellow perch, sunfish, bullheads and inland trout. The same category can only have one meal per month of walleye, pike, bass, catfish and all other fish species. Muskies are completely off limits.

Those guidelines are shifted and much less strict for women past childbearing age and men in general.

In Hmong communities, white bass is very popular, Lee said. In addition, families tend to consume trout, salmon, walleye, buffalo carp, crappies, bluegills, perch, catfish, whitefish and smallmouth and largemouth bass.

The longer-living, more predatory fish, such as walleye and northerns, will usually contain the highest levels of mercury, yet they provide more of a meal than some of the lower-risk fish.

Different regions and lakes across Wisconsin have varying advisory levels, but not everyone heeds the DNR’s advice. Lee said he sometimes sees these warnings ignored in his own area.

“Folks that go here in Sheboygan off the pier, the recommendation is to only eat one salmon or trout per month, I believe,” Lee said, “And I know plenty of families that eat more than that per month during the fishing season.”

Fortunately, Lee said he thinks the younger generation of fishermen are more able to read the signs and be aware of the potential risks. While translations can be difficult, Lee said the advisories are doing their job.

“It definitely is working and that’s what they’re there for, is to make the public aware,” Lee said.