Awful Fishy

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

The page then includes a helpful list of 123 fishing areas in the state of Florida. Included at the bottom of that list is a section titled "No Consumption." Readers will see WCA 2 and 3 listed there. Then they must return to an underlined link in the copy that says "map" and open that page on their computers. Eventually readers can locate maps that show canals and roads in the area.

In Broward County only two bodies of water are listed as safe for unlimited consumption of fish: a pond at Delevoe Park, located near Sistrunk Boulevard and NW 31st Street in Fort Lauderdale, and the C11 canal in the western part of the county.

If mercury danger in fish would seem to justify warning signs, the acting director of the Department of Health's toxicology division, Joe Sekerke, isn't quickly convinced. "We put out hundreds, even thousands of warnings," Sekerke argues, describing the pamphlets and online information. "The information is there for the taking." Signs, he tells a reporter, might just be torn down.

Arthur Keys likes to fish Broward County's canals and lakes when time permits, and he ferries his children out of the city to fish on weekends
Derek Hess
Arthur Keys likes to fish Broward County's canals and lakes when time permits, and he ferries his children out of the city to fish on weekends
Arthur Keys likes to fish Broward County's canals and lakes when time permits, and he ferries his children out of the city to fish on weekends
Arthur Keys likes to fish Broward County's canals and lakes when time permits, and he ferries his children out of the city to fish on weekends

Sekerke claims the health department does more than post online warnings or print brochures. A couple of years ago, in league with the DEP, the department conducted an 8000-household survey with a single object in mind: to find out if bass fishermen keep and eat their catches.

"Sure, the mercury is still there in the fish, but what we found was that the vast majority don't eat the bass," Sekerke says. They release the fish back into the water. Others, he conjectures, probably don't eat enough to hurt them.

Along the canals and at such well-advertised locations as the Sawgrass Recreation Area, Sekerke's survey apparently doesn't hold true. About half of the bass fishermen questioned near the water there recently said they sometimes keep fish. Many admit they are not concerned about mercury poisoning -- after all, the fish look healthy and the water is fairly clear. "Oh sure, they keep the catch all the time," says a manager who answers the telephone at Sawgrass to advertise the area's for-hire fishing guides.

The FWC's brochure and online information notes that "those anglers wanting to try their luck in WCA2 will find access at the Sawgrass Recreation Area, two miles north of SR84 along U.S. 27. Twenty-five miles of canals and their associated marsh can be found there." In a chamber of commerce- style promotion, the FWC even lists five private guides who are happy to host fishing trips into the area.

Every one of those miles of waterway is full of fish that may carry more than 1.5 parts-per-million of mercury, three times the maximum safe amount, according to state advisories. Put in that light, Sekerke admits, maybe signage would help. "I have to tell you, I'm only the acting director, and I haven't got a handle on that yet," he says. "Maybe it's something I should look into."

Like Sekerke, the DEP's Tom Atkeson isn't enthusiastic about signs, either. He figures the solution to the mercury problem is stopping it at the source rather than putting out warning signs. "People might ignore those," he says, echoing a common official refrain. And he doesn't think people eat enough canal fish to matter. Atkeson bases his opinion on his own boyhood in northwest Alabama 40 years ago, where subsistence fishing "was a regular thing. There was grinding poverty then in a way maybe there isn't now. If they didn't get fish on the table, they didn't have protein. Here nowadays the diet may be more varied." And anglers don't have to eat the fish because they have other choices.

At least about Arthur Keys, Atkeson is right. Unlike others who say they fish two or three days a week and eat what they catch, Keys does not rely on the fish for regular food. And except for the single bass one of his sons plucked from the water, his fish fall into a "limited consumption" category described by the FWC. He may eat one eight-ounce helping a week safely, and his children may eat one per month. A test of the flesh of one of his small pan fish later reveals no excessive level of mercury.

But Keys insists he should have been warned. Drinking beer and watching the afternoon wind down along the U.S. 27 canals, he begins to worry about the fish in his bucket, slowly accumulating in number as his children snatch them from the water.

"You'd think they'd let somebody know what's going on," he muses. Keys cannot remember seeing anything about mercury poisoning or any other kind of fish advisory, nor even receiving such notices with a fishing license. "So what's it supposed to do to you?" he asks, keeping an eye on his crew.

He remains silent when told of nerve and brain damage and exaggerated danger to children and women. "But we can eat some of this, right?" he asks.

Keys' plan for the fish his family catches is simple: carry them home in a five-gallon white bucket filled with canal water. Wash them, fillet them, bread them with flour, salt and pepper them, and fry them to a crisp finish. Eventually the family accumulates 11 fish, which end up filleted and soaking in milk that evening -- something Keys says will "clean them up."

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