Keeping fish for dinner has become controversial. It wasn’t too many years ago that most anglers planned to put what they caught on the table. Whether they caught five or 50, all but the smallest went on the stringer. It was normal. You probably have family photos to prove it. Guys who let all their fish go were often regarded with a level of suspicion.
The folks who are still around from that generation have mostly adopted the modern catch-and-release ethic. But for many of them, it still feels a little funny to put a perfectly edible fish back in the water, especially if that fish is also legal to keep.
A lot of those people are now living here in Southwest Florida (Motto: God’s waiting room), often in pre-planned communities, golf-course neighborhoods, or in a large condo complexes. These developments are very nice, with such features as gates to keep the religion salesmen out, tropical landscaping to make walking the dog more visually appealing, and ponds so the developers could sell the idea of a waterfront community. Of course, the ponds were really dug to provide cheap fill dirt and serve as legally required stormwater retention areas, but they don’t mention that in the brochure.
If you dig a hole in the ground anywhere in Florida and then let it fill with water, fish will appear. If you let a bunch of fishermen live near the hole, they will bring buckets of bass and bluegill caught elsewhere and dump them in. It doesn’t take long for a “water feature” to become a fishin’ hole. And of course, some of the fish caught are going to end up in skillets.
If you live in one of these places — and there are hundreds scattered around the area, so there’s a good chance you do — you may have noticed that there are maintenance people who work on the grass and landscaping and ponds. The problem with a tropical paradise is that unless it’s groomed and tamed, it goes jungle on you pretty quick.
To make the job lighter work, there are many chemicals that are commonly used. There are various formulas of pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides, many of which can be sprayed in heavy concentrations because they don’t affect turf grasses. There are fungicides that prevent root diseases and unsightly toadstools. There are plant growth regulators to prevent seeding, and growth hormones to stimulate more rapid growth. And don’t forget the poisons used to kill fire ants, nematodes, caterpillars, grasshoppers, aphids, whitefly, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and any other bug that might dare to take a nip of you or your ornamental plants.
These chemical cocktails certainly do the job. Take a walk though my grandparents’ pasture in DeSoto County, and you’ll quickly discover there are bugs everywhere. Every step kicks up something that hops, crawls or flies away. On the golf courses and around the gated communities, there’s nothing. Nature has been brought to her knees.
Of course, these compounds don’t just disappear. They, and the chemicals they are degraded into by sun, water and various microorganisms, linger in the environment. Some don’t last very long; others stick around for years. Naturally, the concentrations are highest in the immediate area where they were first applied, but also in the places where they are carried by flowing water. Water tends to seek out low spots, and the lowest spots are those stormwater retention ponds that all the drainage ditches lead to.
Assembling all these pieces leads us to the conclusion that those fishin’ holes are also collection sites for a rich stew of chemicals that, if you saw them listed on the ingredients of your favorite beef jerky, would cause you to not only immediately throw away the package but also become vegan and boycott the store where you bought it.
But, does that mean that the fish caught from these ponds is unsafe to eat?
For every chemical compound, there is a dose that will kill you rapidly. Even things that you intentionally ingest on a daily basis because they are necessary nutrients to sustain life can and will kill you dead if you swallow too much. Sodium chloride (table salt) is a great example, and so is dihydrogen monoxide (water).
For (almost) every chemical compound, there is a dose that is considered safe. Even scary things like arsenic, cyanide and ricin can be taken (relatively) safely in very low amounts, not that I am recommending it. The trick is determine the exact amount that might be harmful.
Of course, the EPA doesn’t allow the widespread broadcast of such immediately dangerous poisons, but still: There are going to be varying amounts of chemicals of varying toxicity in the pond water you are harvesting your fish from, and therefore it seems highly probable that there will be some amount of same in the fish themselves.
There is no such thing as chemical-free food. Every bite of meat, vegetables and starch you eat has measurable concentrations of agricultural chemicals in it. Every calorie of carbohydrates, proteins and fats comes with a tiny side of compounds the FDA says is safe, and we have no choice but to swallow it.
Even so, pond fish seem to me like a higher risk. So I limit my intake: One meal a month, whether they come from gated community ponds or canals that run through agricultural lands. Does that mean they won’t give me cancer? I hope so — but remember, I’m a fisherman, not a chemist.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.