Chinook salmon could be a health hazard
Orcas are being poisoned by their own prized prey, the chinook salmon, scientists say.
Natives eat a lot of this fish too. Are they getting contaminated as well? Ernie Crey, a senior policy adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council, wants to know.
In January 2009, when a study came out about how toxin-laced chinook are affecting the iconic but at-risk orcas of the West Coast, Crey wrote and asked the Fraser Health Authority about the safety of this traditional First Nations food. But he didn’t get any response.
It was only earlier this month that he was informed that his three-year-old letter will be looked into.
“There’s no testing going on, although…time and money have been taken to test the orcas to see why their populations are in decline,” Crey told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “To my knowledge, no federal department or agency has said, ‘Wait a minute. I wonder if the aboriginal people’s reliance on this same fish poses any threat and is having any impacts?’ ”
Crey said that he hopes the Fraser Health Authority, a provincial body, will move where federal agencies have taken no action. “It’s a fact that these killer whales are badly contaminated with toxins like dioxins and pesticides, and they’re picking those contaminants up because of their reliance on chinook,” Crey said. “It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to realize that the aboriginal people on the Fraser [River] are eating those same fish.”
The Fraser Health Authority declined a Straight request for an interview about Crey’s letter. Spokesperson Roy Thorpe-Dorward suggested getting in touch with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Crey had the opportunity to speak with federal fisheries officials on February 10 during a public consultation in Abbotsford on a government strategy to protect the two resident orca populations in the southern coastal waters of B.C. and off Washington state.
But according to Crey, he was told that it’s not Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s job to investigate poisons that First Nations people might accumulate from consuming chinook that have picked up toxins from their food and environment. He noted that human fat samples must be taken to determine the level of toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Although PCBs were banned from manufacture in North America in 1977, these chemicals persist in the environment.
PCBs and other so-called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, in southern and northern resident orcas and their chinook prey are the focus of the 2009 paper cited by Crey. It says southern resident orcas are among the most PCB-contaminated marine mammals in the world, and notes that fish accumulate pollutants through their gills and diet.
“As the two resident killer whale populations in British Columbia intercept these returning salmon, they are exposed to different dietary POP concentrations,” the document states. “We conclude that the endangered southern resident killer whales are exposed to much higher concentrations of POPs than their northern counterparts through the consumption of more POP-contaminated chinook salmon, and may increase their consumption of salmon in order to compensate for the reduced lipid content observed in southerly chinook.”
The report was coauthored by Peter Ross, a research scientist at FOC’s Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island.
In a phone interview, Ross underscored that the federal government has been supporting research into the quality of a traditional First Nations seafood diet. However, he stressed that “most of the evidence so far” suggests that only creatures as large as orcas face health risks from eating contaminated chinook.
“Killer whales are large animals that are eating up to 150 kilograms of salmon per day,” Ross told the Straight on the line from his office in Sidney. “About 55 percent of what they eat is thought to be chinook.…So when you compare that to the average Canadian, the average Canadian is eating something like 60 grams, or two ounces, of seafood a day, total. So there’s really a very much, much higher risk factor for something like killer whales that sit at the very top of the food chain.”
Ross also said that Fisheries and Oceans Canada will continue research on factors affecting the health of the chinook, like climate, habitat, and pollution. “We really don’t know where all of these chemicals are coming from,” he said about pollutants in the ocean. “They’re coming from sources in Canada, the United States. They’re coming from ocean currents. They’re coming from the atmosphere. They’re being imported from the ocean by chinook salmon when they return.”
According to online information from Health Canada, people who eat “large amounts of certain sports fish, wild game, and marine mammals are at increased risk for higher exposures and possible adverse health effects” from PCBs. Those people include aboriginal peoples, anglers, and hunters.
However, the federal health agency states that the “current state of knowledge suggests that low-level exposures…are unlikely to cause adverse health effects”.
Crey may get the same line down the road. But that isn’t likely to stop him from raising questions about how chinook consumption is affecting people’s health. Crey said that he’s even thinking of asking the World Health Organization for advice.