May 24, 1997

Bass caught in St. Johns have high mercury levels

JACKSONVILLE (AP) -- Bass caught in the St. Johns River have high levels of mercury, in some cases higher than state guidelines for human consumption, area water managers say.

In a study conducted by the St. Johns River Water Management District, researchers found high mercury levels in 18 of 31 fish taken from several areas of the river.

The results mirror circumstances in a number of other Florida rivers, where people have been advised to cut back or stop eating fish because of the dangers of long-term medical problems caused by mercury.

Jeffrey Goldhagen, Duval County's public health administrator, said he wanted more details to determine whether his office should look into the matter.

"Yes, this is a public health issue," he said.

But those attending this weekend's eighth annual Blue Crab Festival in Palatka, on the river south of Jacksonville, apparently have nothing to fear.

The 15,000 pounds of blue crabs that will be consumed are shipped in from throughout the Southeast and none came from the St. Johns River, said Jami Thomas of the Organized Fishermen of Florida. Most of the crabs, she said, came from the Gulf of Mexico.

Mercury accumulates gradually in the bodies of people and can cause nerve and brain damage, birth defects and problems with vision or hearing.

Researchers tested the bass last year and early this year to measure effects of some types of pollution in the river.

They found the highest concentrations in fish caught around Rice Creek and Welaka, both in Putnam County. They found less-elevated mercury levels in fish at the Jacksonville-St. Johns County line and the lowest levels were in fish near Green Cove Springs in Clay County.

The state warns people not to eat fish at all if mercury levels are above 1.5-millionths of the fillet's weight.

Eighteen of the St. Johns fish had mercury above 0.5-millionth level, and four from Putnam County were above the 1.5-millionth level.

John Higman, a water management district scientist who ran the study in conjunction with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and University of Florida researchers, said state officials would need to test larger numbers of fish before deciding on warnings about eating fish from the river.

The reasons for the mercury presence are not entirely clear, Higman said.

The metal has been used in many industries, including factories that make bleach and paper.But Higman noted that some rivers and lakes have high mercury levels even though they are far removed from industry.

Mercury has been found in the livers of some dead cormorants in Florida Bay and has also shown up in fish, raccoons, birds, alligators and one panther in the Everglades in the past several years.

Area residents who like to eat bass from popular fishing spots in West Volusia needn't change their diets. The fish are safe to eat, as far as mercury levels are concerned.

"We're fine," said Fred Cross, a fish biologist at the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in DeLeon Springs.

Tests on fish taken from the St. Johns River system have shown levels to be well within the acceptable range in most of Volusia County, he said. Slight amounts of mercury are found in bass and all kinds of food because mercury occurs naturally in soil, Cross said.

From Lake Harney north, including the DeLand area, bass are perfectly safe to eat, he said. South of Lake Harney, health officials have advised people to limit their intake -- but they still can eat quite a lot of fish without worrying, Cross said.

The recent St. Johns River Water Management District study did not include Volusia County. It focused on the overall health of the St. Johns River from its north end at the Atlantic Ocean to its confluence with the Oklawaha River in Putnam County.

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