Awful Fishy

For Broward's canal fisherman, potentially toxic levels of mercury are a part of the catch of the day

But the state's scientists do not know how many pounds of fish containing dangerous levels of mercury would actually hurt an individual. "You'd have to eat a lot of it," says Atkeson, the DEP's mercury coordinator.

When the DEP worked with a University of Miami epidemiologist to conduct a study of bank anglers who ate their fish in Dade County six years ago, no one was surprised by the results: The levels of mercury were higher in those who regularly ate the fish than in those who didn't. But "we decided the levels were not high enough to raise grave concerns for them," says Atkeson.

That isn't necessarily good news. Atkeson admits that "you might not know it if someone was poisoned -- a fetus or a child. They might be a little slower, they might never reach their full potential. And you just might not realize that mercury was the cause."

To avoid such insidious tragedy, posted warnings exist along the waters south of Alligator Alley in Miami-Dade County, the result of the 1990s-era state campaign to educate Indians and other anglers who frequently fished the Everglades. News reports at the time provided regular warnings when the mercury problem became widely apparent.

Since then little has been heard about the problem, though it has not diminished. Mercury in fish remains an extreme threat, one which affects the Everglades habitat of western Broward County. Say FSU researchers, "The Everglades may have the highest levels of mercury contamination ever seen in a freshwater ecosystem, period." Their information was compiled from soil and fish samples taken periodically throughout the region, which includes WCA 2 and 3.

None of the four state agencies managing water or protecting public health and the region's environment cares enough to erect warning signs for anglers in WCA 2 and 3.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, for example, pays a staff scientist to study the mercury problem for the agency. And it plants the agency signs at public parking areas and sites where officials keep track of water quality, water levels, and rates of dispersal to farms or elsewhere. But warning signs are somebody else's business. "It's not really our place; I think it's Fish and Wildlife or the Department of Health," says Larry Fink, the management district's mercury scientist.

At the FWC, fisheries biologist John Fury says his department is not responsible either. "I think it's the health department," he conjectures. "But there's a definite concern about [WCA 2 and 3], and we do have mercury advisories written up in our regulations."

Fury and others at the FWC take samples of fish -- no more than once per year, and then only in areas suspected of suffering most from methylmercury pollution. The most recent samples, he says, confirm that the larger fish in canal waters of WCA 2 and 3 still contain more than 1.5 parts-per-million of mercury. The FWC stocks fish as well, adding bass to some canal waters and catfish to some lakes and ponds in city areas.

But the agency doesn't post warning signs in Broward County. Instead FWC information officers provide positive reports of Broward canals and waterways. The following excerpt from the FWC's advertisements appear both in brochure form and online, describing WCA 2 and 3: "Both areas have continually provided superior fishing throughout the years. Largemouth bass is the most sought-after species and when water levels are right, provide anglers with some of the highest catch rates in the state…. The majority of fishing takes place in the winter and spring months when water levels are continually dropping, which concentrates fish into the perimeter canals."

Such helpful information, accompanied by advice about what bait may be used and how to fish the canal banks, contains no warning about methylmercury in fish.

To get such a warning, anglers have to research health warnings specifically provided about mercury, either by finding a free pamphlet at the county tax collector's office or by going to the FWC's Website. An official at the Broward County tax collector's office said the state designated that office as the keeper of regulations and warnings about fishing "probably because a lot of people come here."

Once at the FWC Division of Freshwater Fisheries' online site ( fishing/index.html), some searching is required to find the mercury warnings, and more searching is required to discover just what officials mean by WCA 2 and 3.

"Hell, nobody could figure it out unless they had a lot of time," says Dan Cline, a bass fisherman who reported taking a look at the online information one day. Cline is right. The page offers a long list of regulations and advertisements. At the bottom 26 options appear. Among them: freshwater rules, fishing tips, boat ramps, fish management areas, fishing publications, fisheries permits, bass tags for cars, a fishing events calendar, and health advisories.

The first sentence of the health advisories page is comforting: "For the most part, Florida's freshwater fishes are considered safe to eat." A scroll down the page reveals a section titled "Mercury," wherein readers are advised to contact their county public health department or the Department of Health's Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology. If they read carefully, they will discover that the Department of Health "recommends that fish caught in certain parts of the Everglades should never be eaten."

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