Tribal monitoring of mercury vital to lake healthMore than 50 projects on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are underway to not only clean-up pollution hot spots, but to return the Great Lakes to their natural state.
By: By Mike Simonson/Wisconsin Public Radio, Superior Telegram
More than 50 projects on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are underway to not only clean-up pollution hot spots, but to return the Great Lakes to their natural state.
The federally-funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative will continue through 2014, unless Congress decides otherwise.
Last April, tribal members of Lake Superior Ojibwa followed an ancient custom by spearing fish on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. Some of these fish ended up in a laboratory in Superior to be tested for mercury levels.
Lake Superior Research Institute scientist Tom Markee says they started with 260 walleye but now his freezer at the University of Wisconsin -Superior is almost empty.
“There’s not many left. Actually, they did more today so there’s only about three bags of it left probably about 30 fish,” Markee said.
Most of the fish are from inland lakes in northern Wisconsin, but a handful of lakes are also tested from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Minnesota. A three-year $458,000 grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in Odanah, Wis. makes this testing possible.
Mic Isham of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwa is the chairman of the GLIFWC board. He says they’ve been testing fish for mercury for the past quarter century.
“I mean what good is it eating fish if you’re going to be poisoned by it?,” Isham asked. “And so we wanted to do awareness and education and that’s how we started in the 90’s.”
GLIFWC Environmental Biologist Sara Moses is working on the project in the Odanah offices on the Bad River Reservation.
“You know, our goal isn’t to scare anyone or anything like that, discourage people from eating fish,” she said. “The goal’s really the opposite. What we want to do is try to inform the tribal members in how they can still consume fish, but do it in a safe way.”
Mercury drifts to the Great Lakes region in part from coal-fired power plants as far away as China. Because of that, Moses says eliminating mercury from fish isn’t the goal.
“The goal really would be to reduce it to the degree that we can and hopefully bring it to a point where we can eliminate consumption advisories so people can really safely eat unlimited amounts of fish.”
High levels of mercury can damage the human nervous system, especially among newborns and children. Isham says tribal people have a bigger stake in knowing how much mercury is in the lakes they fish. Fishing isn’t sport for them. It’s for sustenance and their cultural life.
“I mean we eat them at every feast, at every funeral, at every ceremony and then just within the family home for your regular family meal,” Isham said. “And so any contaminants, especially ones that are bio-cumulative really affect us more than the general population who may eat a walleye here and there when they go out fishing.”
Isham has been spearing fish since tribes exercised their treaty rights more than 25 years ago. He says without the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, efforts to restore native plants, wild rice, as well as fish in their region would be dramatically cut back.
He adds that it’s appropriate the tribes lead this effort to document and update fish consumption advisories.
“European concepts have always been dump everything in the lakes and the waterways and our way of life is like the spider web, the web of life, that everything’s connected and you put something in the ground, eventually it’s going to be in your body,” Isham said. “Now I think all the scientists agree, no matter how small it is that’s the truth. We’re not above everything. We’re a part of it.”
GLIFWC says monitoring over the past few years shows mercury levels declining slightly, about 0.5 percent a year, turning around decades of increased mercury readings. But they say the effort must continue or people will be at risk of mercury contamination.