Are the Fish Safe to Eat?
If you enjoy fishing in Florida, you have probably seen the waterways decline over time. Overdevelopment, sewage spills, chemical spraying, and industrial waste are just a few of the issues that Florida's waterways face. One of those bodies of water is 156 miles long and was nominated as an Estuary of National Significance in 1990 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's east coast where the John F. Kennedy Space Center is located. The Indian River Lagoon is the most biodiverse habitat in North America, but harmful algae blooms have persisted for decades, wiping out over a hundred thousand acres of seagrass. In 2013, the lagoon was labeled a "killing zone" by world news agencies after manatees, dolphins, and pelicans died. Scientists attempted to warn leaders that the water quality and seagrass had been dwindling for decades before these disasters began. These increases in algae blooms have caused communities to question whether fish are safe to eat. Many Florida communities depend on fishing as a food source, and some pollutants in water quality samples build up in fish and wildlife. A few contaminants of concern are microcystin, mercury, PFAS, cyanotoxins, microplastics, PCBs, pesticides, and saxitoxins. Brevard County has fish consumption advisories for mercury in Lake Washington, Fox Lake, Kenansville Lake, St. Johns River, and other lakes but not for the Indian River Lagoon or Banana River. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal released into the environment from coal-burning plants and can travel far in the air contaminating the water. Mercury accumulates in fish which is the primary source of human mercury exposure. Florida has recorded some of the highest levels of methylmercury in the United States. Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) analyzed over 700 fish across four counties (Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martine) for mercury and found that Martin has the most significant concentrations compared to the other counties. They also found that mercury concentrations in fish appear similar to 10-20 years ago, suggesting that it hasn't increased in the Indian River Lagoon. The Florida Department of Health (DOH), the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services run the fish advisory program. These agencies determine if environmental chemicals are present in fish and Florida waters. However, they do not test every water body or for emerging contaminants like PFAS. The toxic mercury advisory should include contaminants such as DDT, PCBs, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). There is substantial evidence that PFAS is in the environment and can harm wildlife and humans. These chemicals have been used in firefighting foams by the aerospace industry and the department of defense for over three decades. Some of the highest levels of PFAS chemicals in the nation have been found in Brevard County. PFAS chemicals are also in pesticide containers widely used for aquatic plant management and by the agriculture industry. Fight for Zero is working on a three-year study on PFAS chemicals with the University of Florida and is collaborating with ORCA to analyze the fish tissue in Brevard County for PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals." These polyfluoroalkyl substances also bioaccumulate the tissues of fish and wildlife and accumulate in the human body, posing several risks to human health. The Indian River Lagoon also has the highest known numbers of microplastics in the world, according to researchers at the University of Central Florida. Microplastics are about the size of a pencil eraser and come from large plastic debris. Plastic pollution from fast food packaging, grocery bags, cigarette butts, and drinking water bottles ends up breaking down in the environment from sunlight and water. ORCA analyzed 380 fish and found that 53% of the stomachs showed microplastics ranging from 1 to 14 pieces. The organization is working to analyze fish fillets to understand the potential exposure to humans consuming these fish. Together we can learn more about the transfer of toxins and toxicants from the Indian River Lagoon and waterways across Florida and how they may be impacting those who consume fish. You can help by donating fish and volunteering with ORCA as they continue their One Health Fish Monitoring project.