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Commercial fisherman Brian Bainbridge can net several thousand pounds of whitefish or herring from Lake Superior during a successful run, but his greatest satisfaction comes when he returns to the dock.
Sometimes people ask if they can have some fish. He takes pride in his ability to deliver.
The operation is more than just the business of Bainbridge, 45, a former tribal chief of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, one of six federally recognized Ojibwe tribes in Wisconsin.
“It’s part of who we are and what we do for a living,” said Bainbridge.
But modern Stady Highlighting the potential dangers of “Chemicals Forever” has raised questions about the effects of consuming fish exposed to toxins in the country’s waterways, including the Great Lakes. For indigenous nations like the Red Cliff Band, where hunting is central to tribal ways of life, culture and sovereignty, pollution can pose disproportionate health burdens.
However, oversimplifying or exaggerating risks carries consequences.
For decades, state governments have advised the public to limit the amount or types of Great Lakes fish they eat due to the presence of mercury, neurotoxins, and cancer-causing PCBs.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have recently generated warnings about fish consumption. A class of more than 12,000 chemicals, some of which are related to Health problemsdoes not degrade in the environment – hence the name “forever chemical”.
Bainbridge believes Lake Superior warnings misleadingly describe all fish as unsafe.
“Lake Superior remains one of the most pristine resources for consumer products,” he said. “It’s really not fair how this could affect our market.”
Experts say he has a point. When not communicated enough, fish warnings can lead to stigmatization of fish consumption.
“It’s a disservice to giving someone the wrong impression and discouraging them from doing something that should have been healthy,” said Matthew Dellinger, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin who studies risk communication and health literacy.
However, when fish contain contaminants, the public should understand the risks. Those making the recommendations walk a tightrope as they balance the need for transparency with avoiding stigma.
Recognize the health benefits of fish
Environmental health agencies generally base fish consumption warnings on a consumer’s “average” diet. These guidelines do not necessarily reflect the increased exposure to toxins faced by communities of color, low-income communities, or indigenous peoples.
People in the Great Lakes region consume more than twice as much as an average American, according to some estimates, while tribal nations consume up to 13 times as much.
Fish cannot be given up when people lack an alternative.
“For an economically oppressed (Ashland) County, we have relied on land and water to feed our families,” said Edith Leosso, retired Tribal Historic Preservation Officer with the Bad River Division at Lake Superior Chippewa. “Many of the tribesmen have very low incomes” and “are very dependent on fish, deer meat, wild rice—anything they can get their hands on.”
And when there are other options—often, processed, shelf-stable foods—they’re usually not as nutritious.
Researchers link the loss of traditional foods to the nutritional health risks of Indigenous peoples.
“In a world where our number one killers are mostly associated with cardiovascular issues, at least when it comes to chronic health conditions, you don’t want to adopt a public health strategy that will only reduce the consumption of a healthy food item overall,” Dillinger said.
Across Indigenous communities in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death after cancer. It occurs at a much higher rate than the white population in those states, according to the Center for Intertribal Epidemiology of the Great Lakes.
Context matters in fish warnings
Ojibwe tribes They have long resisted federal and state efforts to restrict their access to fish in the Great Lakes and inland.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the United States forcibly acquired Ojibwe lands and waters through a series of treaties. But the tribes expressly retain hunting, gathering, and fishing rights in an area known as the ceded territoryIt includes parts of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Three Great Lakes. Later states either ignored or outright rejected the treaties.
Tribal citizens filed multiple legal challenges over the ensuing decades, winning a major victory in Michigan in 1971. Subsequent court rulings required the other two states to similarly recognize treaty rights.
Dillinger said encouraging people to reduce their consumption of some of the risks of fish is at the same time separating them from a healthy food source along with tradition, history and culture.
He repeatedly encountered such concerns during focus groups with the Ojibwe people.
“What is the purpose of fish consumption counseling?” Dillinger said. “Is it telling people not to eat fish, not to engage in this activity, not to appreciate the Great Lakes and all that they have to offer? Or is the purpose of trying to help guide them so they can make their own decisions and navigate the risks and benefits so they can participate in this part of life ?
History of fish warnings
The US Environmental Protection Agency delegates responsibility for preparing warnings on fish consumption to states. the details changes. Even neighboring states bordering shared bodies of water sometimes issue contradictory guidelines.
Michigan issued the nation’s first advisory in 1971, prompted by the discovery of mercury in fish from the St. Clair River, south of Lake Huron.
Thousands of warnings followed. As of 2011, the last year for which the EPA collected advisory data, more than 5,627 Active across 4,821 bodies of water nationwide.
“The idea behind the fish consumption guidelines was that they would be temporary until things cleaned up,” said Assistant Professor Valory Gagnon, director of university-indigenous community partnerships at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center. “A lot of people don’t question their existence that much anymore.”
The EPA’s infographic illustrates this point. He. She It depicts four cartoon fish With the caption: “One fish. Two fish. Don’t fish. Catch fish.”
“A play by Dr. Seuss, as if having guidance is just a normal part of life and growth,” Gagnon said.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regularly publishes guidance urging hunters to “Choose wisely. “
“We strongly encourage people to keep going and fishing,” said Sean Strom, a DNR fish and wildlife toxicologist. “But we just want them to be aware of any warnings that may be in place for their given body of water.”
In the warnings, state and federal regulators usually indicate a high risk for children and people who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or who are breast-feeding.
But some scholars He says fish warnings Unfairly direct people to avoid risks by changing their behavior, rather than asking polluters to reduce risks by cleaning up pollution.
“We can imagine a world without them,” Gagnon said. “If we think about it, we will probably do our best to get that way.”
Provide warnings about fish differently
But until cleanup occurs, people need the information to make informed choices, according to the National Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. The Federal Advisory Committee recommends the publication of culturally appropriate and specific materials.
Experts have developed risk transfer methods that incorporate the importance of hunting to indigenous communities.
Dellinger helped develop a mobile app called Jijinan“our fish” in the Ojibwe language, to encourage consumption within safety limits set by the government.
Tailored recommendations consider age, gender, weight, portion size, and the order of fish from “most beneficial” to “least beneficial.” The warnings are based on data from tribal crops and apply only to portions of the 1836 Ceded Great Lakes Region, which excludes many urban areas.
Gigiigoo’inaan incorporates mercury and PCB contamination into its recommendations, but not PFAS. Dillinger has reasons.
In 2022, the EPA updated Health guidelines draft two PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – to levels so low they indicate no amount of the chemical is safe for human consumption.
The Duke University researchers and the Environmental Working Group considered those levels when analyzing freshwater fish samples sampled nationally by the Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 to 2015.
The study reported that consuming an 8-ounce serving of sampled fish at an average PFOS level would raise serum PFOS concentrations to a level 2,400 times greater than the latest EPA health advice — equivalent to drinking water contaminated for one month. The authors wrote that if all advice for fish consumption included EPA guidelines, almost all freshwater fish taken in by the agency would be deemed unsafe to eat.
While such conclusions make headlines, Dellinger said, they may overestimate the risks of PFOS when more research is needed: Scientists are still determining appropriate risk criteria, key exposure pathways, and hot spots. It’s unclear if the EPA-accounted fish represent the species consumed by most people or swim to locations where most people fish.
“I’m not saying there is no risk,” Dillinger said. “There is almost certainty that they found these fish. But we will need to learn more about exactly where these fish come from.”
David Andrews, chief scientist at the EWG, did not respond to a request for comment.
Although Gigiigoo’inaan does not provide advice on PFOS, an updated version of the app will direct fishermen to local resources.
The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a natural resource management organization that works with 11 tribes in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, provides guidance to promote the safe eating of uga (walleye) and maziginozeh (musky). The committee publishes maps of inland lakes within Ceded Territory that suggest the maximum number of meals per month per lake for a fish of 20 inches in length, providing flexibility that recognizes traditional consumption patterns.
“We try to emphasize that the smaller the walleye, the more food you can eat,” said Karen Ackley, an environmental biologist at GLIFWC.
UNHCR staff provides tribal citizens with maps when registering for the fish spawning season.
“As members of the GLIFWC tribe depend on fish for their livelihood and culture, we need to be mindful of how to communicate the safe consumption of fish to them,” said Hannah Arbuckle, GLIFWC Outreach Coordinator. “People live on these fish.”