August 19, 2006

Mercury-tainted fish are a concern in Great Lakes communities


WELLSTON, Mich. (AP) – As the setting sun cast long shadows over Pine Lake,
its surface rippled by a gentle breeze, Jimmie Mitchell dropped a pinch of
tobacco into the water – a gesture of gratitude for nature’s bounty. 

Mitchell, chairman of the natural resources commission with the Little River
Band of Ottawa Indians, and tribal biologist Marty Holtgren have netted 11
yellow perch and two bluegill from the small lake in southern Manistee County. 

Their mission is partly scientific – evaluating fish population dynamics in
area lakes. But the perch and bluegill will be frozen and eventually served
during a ceremony, perhaps a funeral or festival. To the Anishnaabe tribes of
northern Michigan, fish is more than just food. It’s a link with past
generations, a symbol of cultural identity.

And that makes mercury contamination a particularly touchy matter.

Tribal leaders walk a fine line between encouraging their citizens to retain ancient
traditions and cautioning them against the modern threat of tainted fish, the
leading cause of human mercury poisoning. 

”Our people have always gained subsistence from rivers and lakes,”
Mitchell said. ”Eating fish is part of our DNA; it’s part of who we are.” 

For American Indians, he added, ”the connection to fish and meat and
natural things is so strong, no matter what the danger of contamination is, they’re
still going to eat it.” 

At least 40 states and the federal government issue fish consumption
advisories because of mercury, PCBs and other toxins. 

The latest Michigan advisory warns against eating more than one meal a week
of species such as walleye, northern pike and muskie caught in inland lakes,
as well as rock bass, yellow perch and crappie over nine inches long. These
species prey on smaller fish, passing mercury up the food chain in ever-larger

Women of childbearing age and children under age 15 should eat such fish no
more than once a month, the advisory says. Fetuses and young children are
particularly vulnerable to impaired neurological development from exposure to
methylmercury, the form of mercury that accumulates in fish. 

But while the warnings are for everyone, the significance of fish for many
Native tribes puts them especially at risk. Urban blacks and Hispanics also are
considered ”sensitive populations,” said Amy Roe of the University of
Delaware’s Center for the Energy and Environmental Policy. 

”They’re going to be fishing local rivers more often than others and eating
what they catch more often than others,” said Roe, who included Chippewa
tribes of Minnesota and Wisconsin in a study of mercury contamination among
Native peoples. 

Some Native subpopulations eat four to five times the amount of fish the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumed when developing models for federal
consumption advisories, she said. The average Chippewa eats about 62 fish
meals a year, compared to 42 for the typical sport angler and 36 for Americans in
general, her report said. 

Studies have detected elevated mercury levels in the blood of some
Chippewas, Roe said in her 2003 paper, published in the Bulletin of Science,
Technology & Society.

“Indigenous groups who fish in contaminated waters are paying for their
culture with their health,” it said. 

The Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, which oversees fishery management
for five northern Michigan tribes, is developing a fish consumption brochure
after a series of meetings on the reservations. It should be completed this
fall, said Mike Ripley, environmental coordinator for the authority’s
Intertribal Fisheries and Assessment Program. 

Also in the works is a video that will explain the importance of fishing to
Native communities, the health benefits of eating fish and how to limit risk
of toxic exposure. 

”We don’t want to tell people don’t eat fish,” Ripley said. ”People want
to practice their tradition and culture, but there’s some confusion and we’re
hoping to help clear it up.” 

The amount of mercury in an individual fish depends partly on where it’s
caught, he said. Great Lakes fish, except those found in wetland areas, tend to
have lower mercury content than those in inland lakes. 

Tests of whitefish from tribal commercial operations in northern Michigan
consistently find tissue mercury levels below 0.5 parts per million, the level
that triggers state consumption advisories, Ripley said. Lake herring and
smelt also tend to have low mercury content. 

The Little River Band, based in Manistee, surveyed its 3,200 citizens a
couple of years ago and found that some regularly eat more than 200 pounds of
fish per year – well above amounts recommended by state and federal agencies. 

Aside from the cultural tug, there’s economic reality: ”It’s an available
food source and it certainly does help some people meet the budget,” Holtgren

Springtime spearfishing is a long-standing tradition, but members also use
hooks and lines and limited netting in keeping with tribal regulations, he
said. It’s common for families to stock freezers with fish for winter meals and
ceremonies where other Native dishes are served, such as wild rice,
strawberries and corn soup. 

Mitchell, a father of four, said his family reluctantly heeds the
recommended limits on eating fish. 

”It is very troubling to have to restrict ourselves like that,” he said. 

The Little River Band helped lead the fight against a proposed coal-fired
electricity plant near the Manistee River, a prized fishery. Coal-burning plants
are the biggest source of mercury emissions in Michigan. City officials
denied an application to build the plant in 2004. The tribe also has joined a
multistate lawsuit demanding tougher federal mercury standards. 

While fighting on the political and legal fronts, the tribe has programs
that encourage members to avoid overfishing and keep local stocks healthy,
Holtgren said. 

During their expedition on Pine Lake, he and Mitchell retrieved fish from
nets, threw some back and placed the keepers in an ice chest. They measured the
fish to track growth rates, and recorded how many of each species they take.
The nets are a type that keep fish alive, so unwanted ones can be released. 

”It’s the tribe’s charge to make sure the next seven generations of our
people are protected, so they will have the same ability we have to exercise our
cultural identity,” Mitchell said. 


John Flesher is the AP correspondent in Traverse City and has
reported on environmental issues since 1992.

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