Awful Fishy

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.

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Roger Williams