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Rising mercury in popular fish presents danger

Tournament organizers consider changes for what is done with king mackerel.

TERRY TOMALIN
Published October 8, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - King mackerel tournament organizers throughout the state and the Southeast may have to rethink how they do business now that that the Florida Department of Health has issued a new advisory for mercury in fish.

"It puts us in something of a quandary," said Billy Moore, who helps organize several kingfish events out of Tierra Verde Resort and Marina. "We used to give the mackerel to a fish house then donate the proceeds to the Pinellas Marine Institute. I'm not sure we can do that anymore. We don't want anybody to end up eating fish that is unsafe."

According to the advisory, king mackerel larger than 31 inches are not fit for human consumption. A king that size usually is 20 to 25 pounds, typical of the fish weighed in at most kingfish tournaments.

It is common practice for area tournaments, including those sponsored by Moore, Treasure Island Charities and the Old Salt Fishing Club, to give their catches to a seafood wholesaler, who in turn makes a donation to the tournament's charity.

"Otherwise the tournaments would be accused of wasting fish," said John Willis, who oversaw the popular Suncoast Kingfish Classic series run by the Treasure Island-based charity.

A survey of fish in three tournaments last spring - two sponsored by TIC and one by Moore - showed all kingfish had elevated levels of mercury.

The tissue samples were extracted by researchers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation's Research Institute in St. Petersburg and sent to Severn Trent Laboratories in Tallahassee. The analysis, paid for by the Times, showed that seven of the 19 fish sampled contained mercury at or above the "no consumption" guideline. One fish, a 36-pounder, had nearly twice the level of mercury of the recommended "do not eat" level.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and also can be released into the air through industrial pollution. It falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury. It can cause severe damage to the human brain and nervous system.

"The problem with mercury is that it doesn't go away," said George Henderson, an ecologist with the St. Petersburg-based research institute. "When a fish dies out in the open ocean it doesn't sink to the bottom and disappear into the sediment. Something else comes along and eats it, and the mercury gets recycled right back into the food chain."

That is why apex predators, such as sharks and king mackerel, have the highest levels.

Bob Jones, president of the Southeastern Fisheries Association and vocal advocate for the commercial fishing sector, said the mercury warning is another reason recreationally caught kingfish should not enter the market.

"It cuts into our quota," he said. "Commercial fishermen target the smaller fish, but tournament anglers target the big breeders that can't be good for the population as a whole."

But king mackerel tournaments have skyrocketed in popularity in the past decade. Hundreds of anglers turn out each fall for area tournaments, boosting the area economy. And a portion of the proceeds from the exchange of fish for donations help a variety of charities.

Bob Flocken, a spokesman for the Southern Kingfish Association, the sport's largest sanctioning body, said tournament-caught fish have raised more than $4-million for charities in recent years.

"We (sanction) 70 tournaments in eight states," Flocken said. "But what happens to the fish that are caught is up to the local organizers."

Doyce Mathis, the new executive director for TIC, said his organization will re-examine the way it handles fish weighed at its tournaments this fall.

"The issue will be brought up before the board next week," Mathis said. "The charity usually receives between $1,500 and $2,000 a tournament for the fish, but my guess is that if the fish shouldn't be sold, we should just give them back to the fishermen."

One problem with the mercury advisory is just that: it is an "advisory."

"The amount of mercury considered acceptable varies from state to state," said Luiz Barbieri, a senior scientist with the research institute. "They are not regulations, they are advisories."

Bill Houghton of Madeira Beach Seafood, one of two area seafood houses that handle tournament kings, said the advisory, which also noted king mackerel less than 32 inches may be eaten once a month by everyone expect women of childbearing age and young children, is unlikely to affect the market.

"We have been through this before," he said. "It is a gray area. They aren't saying that you can't sell it. They just want everybody to know what they are getting.

"And as long as we sell it," Houghton added, "people in New York are going to buy it."

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