Victoria – Bull trout caught and tested by Treaty 8 First Nations in northern B.C. are so contaminated with mercury they are unsafe for human consumption, says a science study released today by the West Moberly and McLeod Lake First Nations.
Chiefs from the two First Nations brought 200 pounds of contaminated bull trout from the Crooked River system to the legislature lawn and held a press conference calling for the B.C. government to reverse its decision to approve the controversial $9 billion Site C dam.
“It’s been 50+ years since the first backhoes disturbed the sediments on the Williston Reservoir, releasing methylmercury into the rivers and streams on Treaty 8 traditional territory – and it’s still here, contaminating our fisheries and endangering our health,” said Chief Derek Orr of McLeod Lake First Nation.
“Building the proposed Site C dam would increase the exposure to potentially higher levels of mercury measures in 3 more rivers and many streams that are important for the Aboriginal fisheries in the area,” said Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations. “By ramming through the Site C dam project in the face of negative findings by the government’s own Joint Review Panel, Premier Clark is giving us the impossible choice of sacrificing either our culture or our health.”
“We are here to say that this choice stinks – and it’s high time the Premier smells it too. She can have her mercury-laden fish back. Let her figure out what to do with them. Because we can’t.”
To emphasize their message, the Chiefs displayed all of the contaminated fish at the Legislature during the press conference.
The study found that 98 per cent of the Bull Trout samples had tissue mercury concentrations that exceeded the guideline of 0.1 mg/kg wet weight (ww), based on the consumption of approximately 1 kg of fish per week. This is the guideline that most closely approximates West Moberly and McLeod Lake fish consumption in accordance with cultural practices.
In addition, 37 per cent of the Bull Trout also exceeded the Health Canada Maximum Contaminant Standard of 0.5 mg/1 kg ww.
The Joint Review Panel on Site C found that the dam would cause significant adverse effects on fishing opportunities and practices for First Nations, and that these effects cannot be mitigated. In addition, the Panel found that Site C would cause significant adverse effects on fish and fish habitat and significant adverse cumulative effects on fish.
Chief Roland Willson,
West Moberly First Nation
Backgrounder: Aboriginal Health Risk Assessment of Mercury in Bull Trout Harvested from Crooked River, BC
Scope of Assessment
The assessment is based on an analytical analysis of mercury in tissue samples from 57 Bull Trout that were caught by McLeod Lake Indian Band and West Moberly First Nations in accordance with their traditional seasonal rounds from the Crooked River, which is located in northeast B.C.
Analysis demonstrated that mercury concentrations in 98% of the Bull Trout exceed the BC Ministry of Environment guideline for fish tissue of 0.1 mg/kg ww. Risk to human health was assessed by calculating the recommended maximum weekly intake (RMWI) of Bull Trout for each group. The 95th percentile of mercury concentrations was used to ensure that the calculations are protective of human health. The RMWIs during the Fish Camps should be kept below the following for each group: 0.292 kg fish/week for the General Population; 0.025 kg fish/week for Toddlers; 0.046 kg fish/week for Youth under 12 years of age; and, 0.106 kg fish/week for women of childbearing age or those who are pregnant. During the remainder of the year, the RMWI of Bull Trout is as follows: 0.058 kg/week for the General Population; 0.005 kg/week fresh fish or for Toddlers; 0.009 kg fish/week for Youth; and, 0.021 kg fish/week for women. Note that the consumption of dried fish should be kept lower since drying removes moisture without removing mercury.
How did the mercury get into the fish?
The Crooked River system is connected to the Williston Reservoir, where a mercury fish advisory is in place. Methylmercury was initially released from the flooding of 1,700 km2 of land to create the Williston Reservoir as a result of B.C. constructing of the W.A.C. Bennett dam. Bull Trout originally migrated annually from the Parsnip, Finlay and Peace Rivers into smaller watercourses such as the Crooked River. Since the construction of W.A.C. Bennett dam, Bull Trout migrate from the Williston Reservoir into the Crooked River, where they are caught during Fish Camps within the Crooked River system.
Impacts on aboriginal health and cultural practices
In the spring each year, West Moberly sets up Fish Camps to harvest fish and engage in cultural practices. Members from as far away as Vancouver travel to attend the Fish Camps. During a Fish Camp, an adult typically consumes 4 kgs of fresh fish per 3 days of Fish Camp. Fish are also consumed off-site by being distributed to other community members. A quantity of fish is also frozen or dried for later consumption.
Site C Concerns
The construction of the proposed Site C dam has the potential to increase exposure rates of Aboriginal peoples to higher levels of mercury in the lower Peace, Halfway, and Moberly rivers as well as many tributaries, all of which are culturally significant to the mode of life of the First Nations. Site C, if constructed, would thereby make it impossible for McLeod Lake Indian Band and West Moberly First Nations to safely and meaningfully exercise their cultural practices regarding traditional foods and medicines.