Awful Fishy

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, two friends, and half a dozen children stand under a melting afternoon sun beside a canal in the western reaches of Broward County, watching the water. Tea-color but transparent, the water's surface is unruffled by wind.

Fish appear in small schools close to the bank -- tiny, almost invisible minnows, some with neon-blue tails. In deeper water the family group spots larger fish, what Keys calls "pan fish," working the underwater shelf below the humans, searching for food. The children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, grow excited. They're here to pull those fish from the water.

A downtown Fort Lauderdale resident looking for an afternoon of safe recreation for the family, Keys affixes a worm to his daughter's hook. He provides a fishing rod for each of his children, and he makes sure they're keeping a comfortable distance from other anglers who have gathered nearby on this April afternoon.

While the adults drink beer and supervise the rods, Keys warns the kids to look where they step. He worries about snakes that might lurk in weeds and underbrush. "We're just out here for the beauty, you know," he says. "I mean, I figure this could be dangerous, so we stay over here and I watch them." Keys does not let his family venture into taller grass or fish from any shoreline that drops steeply into deep water. Although no snake appears, the ground is littered with trash from earlier fishing-and-eating parties.

Keys is unaware of another, less visible danger at his bucolic retreat -- posed not by snakes but by the fish he and his children seek. For almost a decade, state agencies have known that fish in the area, especially top food-chain predators such as bass, bowfin, and gar, suffer among the highest levels of mercury contamination in the state or nation. Studies by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Health show that those fish are likely to contain three times the maximum amount of mercury people may safely consume.

What that could mean to frequent fish-eaters is potentially horrific: brain and nerve damage caused by the accumulation of a particular form of mercury, known as methylmercury, in the tissues. Medical researchers say children and pregnant women are especially at risk.

Although the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Department of Health, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and the Southwest Florida Water Management District all insist anglers have been amply warned, the evidence appears contrary.

Many anglers who fish the canals that border the wetlands and agricultural fields east and south of the Everglades remain unaware of the danger. When a New Times reporter queried 16 men and women fishing in the canals recently, none could say what specific danger they faced or how much they should limit their fish consumption in accordance with state warnings found in pamphlets.

Not a single explanatory warning sign posted by any of the four state agencies responsible exists in the popular fishing areas along the canals where the Keys family gathers. At parking areas with boat ramps in western Broward and Palm Beach counties, signs erected by Fish and Wildlife and the Southwest Florida Water Management District refer only to their administrative responsibilities -- none contains warnings about mercury poisoning.

State bureaucrats from those departments say they have not seen a need to erect signs and express little faith that signs will prevent people from eating the fish they catch. Instead they point to brochures available at the county tax collector's office, at stores such as Wal-Mart and Kmart, or on state Websites where the computer-equipped can go online. At those Websites, as in the brochures, warnings are buried amid glowing copy that promotes freshwater fishing in the canals as among the best in the state. The FWC even advertises private fishing guides familiar with the water of western Broward and Palm Beach counties by providing their names and telephone numbers.

Readers of the site can learn in a single paragraph that the $1.4 billion freshwater-fishing industry includes 1.14 million recreational anglers who take 16.5 million trips, generate $37.4 million in taxes, and provide 18,773 jobs.

Warnings that might discourage anglers are not offered side by side with such breathy boosterism.

Like many others Keys says he has never seen the state warnings of mercury danger in fish, either on a computer or in the brochures that are supposed to be handed out with fishing licenses. "If it was that bad, I figure they'd put something up, wouldn't they?" he asks rhetorically.

Good question, but not one the children are worried about. The catching is almost as good as the fishing for them, in spite of their inexperience. They roam the bank trying to eyeball roving schools or individual fish, then get a line in the water in front of them. When this technique fails, they begin to practice patience -- setting out hooks, lines, bobbers, and sinkers and occasionally getting strikes.  

Every few minutes someone shouts or laughs, and a rod bends sharply. Keys is amused and gratified as the kids pull pound-size oscars and smaller bluegill or other sunfish from the water. One of the boys hooks and lands a largemouth bass, expressing particular delight at the sharp fight it throws up and the sleek, predatory shape of the fish, which distinguishes it from the other catch.

No one considers what its flesh might contain.

To reach his fishing spot from the unwavering urban sprawl of his city neighborhood, Keys drove west on I595 to the last exit before the toll booths that greet travelers entering Alligator Alley. Then he abandoned the interstate in a northern turn onto U.S. Highway 27, following a long curve that carries travelers almost immediately past a pull-off beside a wide canal. Several more pull-offs exist in the 13-mile stretch to the Palm Beach County line.

Anglers along the canals range in style and sophistication from cane-pole users to bass-boat techies equipped with fish finders and expensive gear. For Keys part of the pleasure of fishing is education for his children -- their chance to see things they normally can't. Scanning the scene he spots ibis floating overhead and a single alligator drifting midcanal, all part of the natural food chain of predators that rely on fish. He shouts and points when something catches his interest.

There's another plus: a chance for the family to catch supper, just as he did as a boy in North Florida, he recalls. Others have the same thing in mind, apparently. Not far up the road from Keys, a man appears headed for his car, carrying a stringer filled with fish. North and south of the spot lie miles of freshwater canals and tributaries, where the state has provided convenient parking areas for the food- and sports-minded. On any given day several hundred people may park to fish the canals, where occasional signs note the supervision of the Southwest Florida Water Management District or the FWC.

In the official jargon of state agencies, the anglers are fishing Water Conservation Area (WCA) 2. Along with WCA 3 to the south, the area includes some 1200 square miles of eastern Everglades habitat, stretching across western Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. Together WCA 2 and 3 contain more than 50 miles of canals, and many more backcountry fishing spots, according to state descriptions. The area is roughly bordered by the Palm Beach County line on the north, U.S. Highway 41 in Miami-Dade County on the south, Florida's Turnpike on the east, and the Collier County line on the west.

Collected from rainwater runoff and some underground springs, canal water in WCA 2 and 3 flows gently south and east past banks crowded with exotic low growth. Cattails and yellow-flowered Spanish needles cluster near small native cypress trees, red bay trees, and an occasional pond apple tree. For miles along the western canals of Palm Beach County, the dead trunks of Brazilian pepper trees line the banks.

Throughout that system fish exist as both predators and prey: bluegill, redear sunfish, pickerel, oscar, and the imported Mayan cichlid flourish. Hunting those species are larger predators: gar, bowfin, and largemouth bass, the most sought-after freshwater game fish. Bass in WCA 2 and 3 provide anglers with some of the "highest catch rates in the state," declare Fish and Wildlife brochures. And the bigger a fish is, the more likely it harbors dangerous levels of mercury.

Although Arthur Keys does not know that, scientists and administrators in the state Department of Health and the DEP do: They are all too familiar with WCA 2 and 3. Their written warnings to anglers -- not posted on public signs -- include the following recommendations:

• Never consume bass, bowfin, or gar caught in WCA 2 and 3.

• Eat no more than one eight-ounce helping of other fish per month, unless you're a full-grown male. Then you can eat one per week.

The need for such extreme rationing grew with the 20th Century. For 100 years mercury has been slipping into the South Florida environment like an invisible enemy, impossible to track accurately to its source, says Tom Atkeson, the bureau chief of the mercury program at the DEP. A metal sometimes known as quicksilver, it arrives by air, reaching the soil in the abundant wash of South Florida's rain. Once on the ground, an unusual bacteria converts the metal to its organic form, methylmercury. The organic form -- odorless and invisible -- can be deadly if consumed in abundance. Atkeson's job is to organize and direct research that ultimately might identify the causes of mercury pollution and propose ways to stop them.  

Neither Atkeson nor any other researcher in state and federal government has identified just how much mercury comes from local sources and how much originates from "worldwide use," but they can cite some major contributors: mercury batteries, paints containing mercury, phosphorescent lights. Pollutants from vehicles and other sources in the vast urban sprawl stretched along the eastern coast of Florida are also part of the problem.

"How much a part of the problem?" Atkeson asks. "We don't know. But we do know that since 1900, mercury in the Everglades region has increased fivefold."

Among the biggest contributors of airborne mercury, he says, may be the emissions from medical-waste incinerators and municipal solid-waste plants. Once mercury has arrived, it remains planted in the environment for years -- and in South Florida it becomes converted to methylmercury.

"This is the stuff that can kill," says Bill Orem, a career scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. Like Atkeson, the 47-year-old Orem is a midcareer scientist. Unlike Atkeson, he is not an office scientist or a bureaucrat. Orem travels regularly from his office in Reston, Virginia, to South Florida to study mercury accumulation and its effects here. A calm, articulate admirer of the vast Everglades region, Orem explains that methylmercury, the organic form of the metal, springs from a bacterium that does not require oxygen to live. Found in underwater peat sediment or mats of algae, the bacteria use sulfur to respire, using it as other organisms use oxygen.

Orem became unpopular with farmers late last year when his research traced the major source of sulfur in the Everglades to sugar and vegetable farmers north and east of the region. Orem believes that, by loading large quantities of sulfur onto their fields to help crops absorb nutrients, the farmers may unknowingly nurture methylmercury farther south.

Orem thinks most of the sulfur runs off the fields and into the canals after rains or flooding. Florida Farm Bureau spokesmen say there is no evidence to suggest that, and attribute Everglades sulfur levels to natural evolution in ground water.

"I got blasted at the January meeting of the [Southwest Florida Water Management District] by agricultural people who don't think we have enough evidence to blame the sulfur they use," Orem says. "They think it comes from ground water."

But ground water accounts for only a small percentage of water that comes into the Everglades and surrounding areas, so Orem believes it probably isn't the primary source. "Before our study no one realized how much sulfur the farmers really use," he says.

Later this year he will conduct tests in the Everglades and in parts of WCA 2 and 3 to determine if sulfur levels vary with seasons and with periodic fertilizing in the fields to the north.

"I certainly don't want to be seen as blaming the farmers, because I'm not blaming them," Orem insists, reflecting the opinions of state-agency scientists who say it is far too early to begin asking farmers to find crop stimulants other than sulfur.

"This isn't something they could have known, it isn't something they did purposely," Orem says. And if state scientists accept his studies as conclusive proof that sulfur stimulates methylmercury in the Everglades region, Orem is confident that farmers will adjust their level of use.

He points to a precedent: the phosphorus problem. Farmers stopped using phosphorus in their fields after scientists demonstrated the huge damage it caused in the Everglades. But that took painstaking research and legal pressure before an $8 billion Everglades restoration project was planned to clean up the Everglades and remove phosphorus -- a project still not fully under way. Phosphorus helps create explosions of exotic species that are destroying the native flora and fauna of the Everglades.

Orem, a scientist of the senses, followed his nose to the sulfur problem. He decided to investigate the sulfur connection one day in 1994 when he was wandering along the Hillsboro Canal. "I smelled a distinct odor of rotten eggs, which doesn't go with a freshwater environment," he said. The odor characterizes salt marshes where sulfur exists naturally. In a freshwater environment, the smell suggests an unnatural source of sulfur, which led to Orem's research. The rotten-egg odor, Orem explains, is the sign that bacteria are using sulfur by "breathing in sulfate and breathing out sulfide -- these same bacteria are also the guys that methylate the mercury."

When methylation occurs -- when mercury metals fall to earth in the rain and become organic -- it threatens all the animals and people in the food chain who consume it, by destroying body tissue. But it is most dangerous to animals at the top of the food chain because it "bioaccumulates" rather than breaking down.  

Orem explains how this works: "You might start out with methylmercury being one unit in [algae]. Something that eats that might have 10 units, the guy that eats him might have 100 units, and the larger fish might have 1000 units." By the time a bird eats the fish, a raccoon eats the bird, and a panther eats the raccoon, a million units of methylmercury might accumulate. If people continue to eat fish poisoned by methylmercury, it accumulates in them as well.

The consequences can be horrific. Absorbed quickly by the digestive tracts of fish-eaters, "the neurotoxin can cause irreversible brain and nerve damage, seizures, kidney failure, even blindness," according to a 1997 report by Florida State University scientists.

The history of mercury poisoning stretches grotesquely back in time. In the 19th Century British milliners and workers who used mercury in the making of felt hats suffered brain damage apparent in their increasingly strange behavior, giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter." Closer to home and only ten years ago, pregnant Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin discovered that high levels of mercury in their blood hurt the development of their fetuses. The women accumulated mercury from eating walleye caught in Wisconsin lakes polluted by the toxic metal.

In the central Everglades, Seminole and Miccosukee Indians once relied heavily on fishing, but no more. An education campaign in the early 1990s -- after the problem was identified and scientists determined that Everglades fish are among the most toxic anywhere -- virtually ended the practice, according to Florida State University researchers. The researchers point out, though, that mercury-related health problems in people have not been identified in the Everglades.

The Indians have good reason to buy fish from a supermarket rather than catching and eating them. State-agency scientists acknowledge that individual bass and other top predatory fish throughout the Everglades probably contain at least 1.5 parts-per-million of mercury -- three times the maximum amount recommended safe for eating. They say smaller fish and other species may or may not contain that much mercury.

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."

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.

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."

Before supper the following night, the fillets appear clean and white, and Keys follows his mother's recipe, frying them in hot oil. The cooking smell fills the small kitchen, and the children seem pleased. "Look there, look there," Keys says, nodding at one of the boys. "This is what you caught."

But there is some concern. Two of his children have decided to taste the fish only, not to make a meal of them.

One of Keys' daughters, Erica, says she doesn't know exactly what mercury can do to a person, but once warned that it's bad, she doesn't want to find out. "No way," she mutters, faced with a helping of canal fish. Keys laughs.

"You know, it's just hard for me to believe that they don't warn you," he remarks. "I mean, it looks OK and it smells good and it tastes good, you know?"

Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address:

Related Links

Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Florida Department of Health
Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Florida Division of Freshwater Fisheries
Southwest Florida Water Management District
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Geological Survey
Florida Farm Bureau

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