Fish are a major resource for residents around the Great Lakes, particularly First Nations, Tribal, and Métis communities.
Many Great Lakes residents support their diets with local fish, gaining an important source of essential nutrients such as polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein.
But fish also accumulate toxic chemicals from the environment. Potential health impacts are not restricted to anglers, as many species of Great Lakes fish such as trout, walleye and perch are available for sale in commercial markets.
In addition to facing potentially higher health impacts due to higher fish consumption rates, First Nations, Tribal and Métis communities also may experience distinct cultural, economic, and spiritual impacts, particularly in Lake Superior.
Balancing the risks and benefits of Great Lakes fish consumption is an ongoing challenge for fish consumers. Fish consumption advisories on certain species of fish in some water bodies are required as a result of chemical contamination from environmental pollution.
A wide variety of ethnic, cultural and socio-economic factors influence fishing practices, consumption patterns, and importantly, compliance with fish advisories. Many populations are concerned about fish advisories, particularly high consumers such as indigenous communities, anglers and their families.
Health advisories are also of great concern to those who are most vulnerable to the impact of toxic substances, such as women of child-bearing age and children.
However, “advisories that restrict meals of local fish can have unintended adverse health consequences for First Nations, Tribes and Métis, such as loss of culture and identity, obesity and diabetes,” says Laurie Chan, Canada co-chair of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board (HPAB).
Although not considered in current jurisdictional fish advisories, the board believes that the impacts of fish consumption restrictions include the perception of those being advised, site-specific data, and cultural and socio-economic factors.
For example, the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks and the New York Department of Health have detailed fish advisories issued on different fish species and different water bodies.
However, the advisories are often different even for the same waterbody.
For example, for small mouth bass caught in the St. Lawrence River near Massena, New York, the province of Ontario suggests two to 16 meals for the general population and zero to 12 meals per month for women of child-bearing age depending on the size of the fish.
In comparison, New York suggests up to one meal per month for the general population and “don’t eat” for women of child-bearing age. A Great Lakes Sport Fish Advisory Task Force developed protocols for a Uniform Great Lakes Sport Fish Consumption Advisory in the early 1990s that need to be updated.
There are multiple human health factors associated with consuming fish, such as nutrient benefits. But exposure to and effects of multiple contaminants on fish and humans, cultural values, and the availability and quality of substitutes are not evaluated as part of current Great Lakes fish advisories.
Elaine Faustman, US co-chair of HPAB, notes “an integrated and balanced framework for fish consumption advisories could include many relevant risk and benefit factors.”
This is why the HPAB and the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board are partnering with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s Environmental Program, along with Ontario and New York officials, to explore approaches supporting a fish consumption advisory framework that considers a wider set of factors and address the concerns of fishers and First Nations around the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern (AOC).
The collaborative project is a unique effort to provide unified guidance on balancing the risks and benefits of fish consumption advice. This unified guidance is distinct from the current constellation of advisories that overlap across borders and populations with variations in recommendations.
The St. Lawrence River AOC was selected for the case study because it is a multi-jurisdictional AOC with multiple chemicals of concern in fish. These include mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Ontario and New York, dioxins in New York, and furans in the Mohawk Council community.
The Mohawk Council community has experienced significant confusion over conflicting fish consumption advisories, which results in community reluctance to engage in traditional cultural practices involving water, fish and land. Akwesasne is subject to five different fish consumption advisories: from New York, Ontario, Quebec, the Mohawk Council (governing body in the northern portion of Akwesasne), and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (governing body in the southern portion of Akwesasne).
This project will serve as a case study for exploring potential approaches that can help reduce confusion over fish consumption advisories in a multi-jurisdictional setting, and assist in ensuring culturally-appropriate advisories.
The project aims to explore a fish advisory framework for the St. Lawrence River; examples of recommended communication messages on fish advisories including First Nations’ perspectives and a list of recommended science and policy priorities to support collaborative fish consumption advisory frameworks for other Great Lakes regions.
The HPAB’s Other Basins Work Group plans to convene a workshop this year to establish and confirm the partnership between affected parties, discuss current fish consumption advisories in the region, and the concentrations of key essential nutrients and chemical contaminants reported in fish species with consumption restrictions.
The first workshop will present the project and lay the foundation of values connected to fish and water in Akwesasne. Following this workshop, researchers will perform individual interviews to expand upon the values and knowledge shared at the first workshop in more detail. The results of the first workshop and interviews will inform the development of a fish consumption advisories framework through the end of the year. A follow-up workshop is planned for 2021 to validate the results of the interview process, determine whether resulting interpretations are correct in the eyes of the community and collect input on the framework from a broad range of jurisdictional partners. The final project report, including the framework, is expected later in 2021.
Jennifer Boehme is a senior environmental scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office and serves as chair of the GLOS Board.