From his boyhood home atop a bluff overlooking Escambia Bay, Ernie Rivers once watched thousands of mullet as they darted through crystal clear water.

Miles-long oyster beds stretched from Gull Point to Magnolia Bluff at the bay’s mouth. Fish and shrimp were so plentiful that the bay was a backyard food basket, helping his family and others get through the Great Depression.

By the time Rivers returned in the late 1960s, after traveling with the Navy, that food basket had been vastly depleted and spoiled by pollution, he said. Human waste and dead fish washed up on the beach in front of his family home.

Forty years after his return, it’s the threat of unseen toxins – PCBs and methyl mercury – that keeps Rivers from casting into the bay where he caught his first fish at age 5.

“They’ve taken my bay completely from me,” said Rivers, 81, citing industry pollution. As a board member of the Bream Fishermen Association, Rivers and others have spent the past several decades pushing for clean water and better fishing.

With more information coming out about toxins in local waterways and fish – and more yet to be learned – Rivers said he doesn’t believe warnings issued by the state go far enough in alerting people of the dangers of eating fish caught locally.

A state health advisory warns people to limit the amount of mullet and largemouth bass they eat if the fish are caught in some portions of the Escambia River. The advisory came after a University of West Florida study showed elevated levels of PCBs in mullet, bass, oysters and crabs, mostly in those found in the lower Escambia River, upper Escambia Bay, Bayou Chico, Bayou Texar and Bayou Grande.

But Rivers and others say that the traveling and spawning patterns of fish like mullet make the advisory misleading. A mullet that had elevated PCBs in the lower Escambia River might be caught later offshore, where they tend to spawn, Rivers said.

“There is a transport of PCBs to the offshore environment,” said Dick Snyder, associate director of UWF’s Center for Diagnostics and Bioremediation. The research group studies PCBs, mercury and other factors affecting waterways and public health.

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