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Mercury warnings envelop area's pristine rivers

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Mercury warnings envelop area's pristine rivers
September 2, 2004
HEALTH
By Bruce Ritchie

DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER
Source: Tallahasse Democrat

Florida officials are finding fish with higher mercury levels in some of the Florida Panhandle's wildest rivers.

A draft Department of Health fish-consumption advisory warns the public against eating largemouth bass from the Crooked River in Franklin County.

Children and women of childbearing age also are advised against eating certain fish species in the Aucilla and Chipola rivers and Equaloxic Creek in Liberty County.

The region's dark rivers support a robust food chain, said Ted Lange, a fisheries biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Mercury falling from the atmosphere is absorbed in the food chain, he said, and is more readily concentrated in predatory fish.

"You might think, 'That is a pristine river, why should it have mercury?'" Lange said. "It's an atmospheric problem."

Lange said the document also shows that fish are healthy and safe to eat across much of the state.

Department of Health officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

A department spokeswoman said in August she expected an updated advisory to be issued before the end of summer, which is Sept. 21. The last advisory was issued in 2003.

Mercury consumption, particularly in children younger than 10, can damage the brain and the central nervous system. Coal-fired electric plants produce about 40 percent of the mercury in the atmosphere, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Waste incinerators are another source.

The draft advisory includes more lakes and streams than in the 2003 advisory. It also lists statewide consumption advisories for dozens of saltwater species, greatly expanding the number previously listed.

Lange said the draft document shows that fish caught by recreational anglers are safe to eat and are part of a healthy diet.

But the National Environmental Trust, which sent the draft advisory to reporters, said it shows that mercury pollution is more prevalent than people realize - and that President Bush should act to reduce mercury pollution from power plants.

The Crooked River in Franklin County, where the public is urged against eating fish, is surrounded mostly by Tate's Hell State Forest.

Children and women of childbearing age are advised against eating largemouth bass from the Chipola River.

At the Aucilla River east of Tallahassee, children and women of childbearing age are told not to eat spotted sunfish.

At Equaloxic Creek, a tributary of the Apalachicola River, children and women of childbearing age are told not to eat largemouth bass caught there.

The 2003 advisory covered about 24 species of saltwater fish caught from specific water bodies. The draft updated advisory covers about 58 species statewide, including grouper, red snapper, red drum and spotted sea trout.

Adults are advised that they can eat two servings a week of many saltwater species. But they are told not to eat shark more than 43 inches in length and king mackerel more than 31 inches in length.

Lange said more waterways and fish species are listed in the draft update because more fish have been tested for contamination.

"It's a document that guides people toward safer fish meals," he said.

The draft also includes general guidelines on eating fish caught in unknown waters or bought at stores.

A representative of a commercial fishing group questioned the scientific standards that were the basis of the draft advisory.

"I think it is ridiculous," said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. "I hope they (state officials) will change their mind."

Lange referred questions about the standards to the Department of Health.

The only Leon County waterways mentioned in the draft are Lake Munson and Lake Jackson.

Children and women of childbearing age are advised to eat only one serving per month of black crappie, bluegill and largemouth bass from Lake Jackson. Others are advised to eat only one meal a week of those species.

For Lake Munson, children and women of childbearing age are advised to eat only one serving per month of black crappie and redear sunfish. Others are advised to eat not more than one serving per week.

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at (850) 599-2253 or britchie@tallahassee.com.



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