Every day, anglers across South Florida reel in swordfish, king mackerel, largemouth bass and other fish that contain high amounts of mercury.
But many of those casting lines from boats, piers and bridges don’t know about the state’s detailed recommendations against eating too much of these species or don’t take them seriously. Although Florida has one of the worst mercury problems in the United States, the Florida Department of Health lacks the money to distribute its consumption advisories, which set limits by species and body of water. The department posts the material online, where critics say it’s too hard to find and too complicated.
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Many charter captains and other experienced anglers discount the warnings anyway, saying they never got sick, they don’t know anyone who got sick and no one eats a particular species frequently enough to receive a dangerous dose of mercury.
“I was told you’d pretty much have to eat fish every day for a year to build up enough mercury in your system to hurt you,” said Capt. Jimbo Beran, of the drift fishing boat Helen S at the Hillsboro Inlet Marina. “That’s what I tell my customers when I clean fish for them, you have to eat it every day. I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem.”
Health authorities encourage people to eat more fish, not less, because it’s highly nutritious, can improve cardiac health and provides benefits to the developing fetus. And they say most South Florida species are safe to eat. But some species – generally large predators – need to be consumed with caution.
At Lake Delevoe, a broad expanse of water just south of Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, the state recommends limiting consumption of five species. But Chester Jackson, 53, who was fishing from a pier Friday morning, said he’s never heard of the advisories.
“When times were hard, you’d go out here and catch a meal,” he said. “I never got sick from anything I caught in this lake. We used to fish here in the 90s. No one got sick.”
Mercury, a metallic element discharged by coal-fired power plants, can build up in the human body over years, causing neurological problems, including memory loss and personality disorders. It presents the greatest danger to children, pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant because it can damage the nervous system of the developing child.
The Florida Department of Health’s fish consumption guidelines run to 28 pages, organized by water body. If you look up Water Conservation Area 2 in the Everglades, for example, you will see that you should not eat largemouth bass of 14 inches or more, bowfin or gar, should limit consumption of redear sunfish, spotted sunfish, butterfly peacock and largemouth bass under 14 inches to one meal per month and limit consumption of warmouth and bluegill to one per week.
“We think it’s so difficult to communicate because it’s so complicated,” said Dr. Todd Sack, chairman of the Florida Medical Association’s Environment and Health Section. “Currently everything’s buried in web sites. It’s there, but you have to dig for it.”
He said the state’s message should be simple: Eat more fish, but get it from the store. For recreational fishing, he said, people should stick to catch and release, especially inshore where mercury levels are highest.
Ted Lange, a biologist who works on mercury issues for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, acknowledged the need for improvement and said the state was working on something more user-friendly.
“It’s very good information but it’s just too much, too arduous to dig through,” he said. “Next step, we’ve been working on a Safe Eating Guideline – most commonly caught and eaten species. I don’t know if there will be the money to print it. It will be on the web.”
Many fish caught in South Florida, of course, are perfectly safe to eat. They include brown bullhead, crappie, striped mullet, sheepshead, gulf flounder and many other species, according to the fish and wildlife commission. Fish with the highest mercury levels are large predators, such as sharks and largemouth bass, which contain in their flesh all the mercury from the fish they’ve eaten.
Fish bought at stores generally present less of a problem than fish from the mercury hot spot of South Florida, so long as you don’t overdo consumption. But even with store-bought fish, there has been extensive debate among the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups about the mercury risks versus the health benefits of seafood.
Despite their debate, “a lot of people still fish to feed their families,” said Andre Eggelletion, a Lauderdale Lakesbarber who has learned to fish lower on the food chain to avoid mercury. “As the economy continues to contract, I don’t see that slowing down. Poor people tell you, ‘I fish for support, not for sport.'”
But many anglers are highly conscious of the risks. While scouting locations for an upcoming bass tournament near Everglades Holiday Park early Thursday, Bryan Windle reeled in a small largemouth bass, which he threw back into the water.
“You can’t eat any of the fish you catch out here; they’re loaded with mercury,” he said. “There’s a list of the fish you can’t eat, but it’s pretty much everything out here.”
Florida reported 13 cases of mercury poisoning in 2010, all but one thought to be related to consumption of fish, according to a state report. But experts say many cases may go unreported because they are milder and the symptoms are never recognized as stemming from mercury.
Although home tests for mercury are sold, some experts question whether they can do the complex analysis performed by professional laboratories.
Kendra Goff, toxicologist for the Florida Department of Health, said the state does its best with limited funds and with the difficulty of getting across a mixed message: Eat more fish but be careful which fish you eat.
“We try to educate people. But we can’t dictate what a person eats or what a person does,” she said. “We encourage people to eat 8-12 ounces of fish per week. That’s two meals.”
Capt. Casey Hunt, of Pompano Beach, said the indisputable health benefits of eating fish outweigh any theoretical dangers from mercury. Fish caught fresh from the ocean, for example, clearly is better than beef from an industrialized farm.
“Some of this cattle meat’s so full of hormones,” Hunt said. “And they’re worried about fish.”
Joe Cavaretta contributed to this report.
What it is: A metallic element discharged by coal-fired power plants and other combustion sources.
How does it get in fish: Settles in water, transforms into organic methylmercury in bacteria and works its way up the food chain.
Some fish to strictly limit: Top predators such as shark, swordfish, tuna and large specimens of largemouth bass
Fish considered safer: sunfish, brown bullhead, crappie, striped mullet, Florida pompano, sheepshead, common dolphin
Effect on the unborn: Brain damage, mental retardation, lack of coordination, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak.
Effect on children: Problems in the kidneys, nervous system and digestive systems
Effect on adults: Much less severe. Irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems. It is considered a potential carcinogen. The phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the shakes, irritability, slurred speech and other symptoms displayed by 19th century hat makers who used mercuric nitrate to make felt.
Warnings not working: A 2008 study of women of childbearing age in the Florida Panhandle found mercury levels were higher among those who had consumed fish the previous month and among those unaware of the fish advisories. Less than a third knew about the warnings.
Sources: Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Research, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission