"When can we eat the fish?"
That's what the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula wants to know.
Officials in Michigan issue fish advisories. Those recommend limits on how much fish we eat because of toxic chemicals that can build up in fish.
Indigenous communities in the Great Lakes are at greater risk because they eat a lot of fish.
For years, there was a focus on trying to get tribes to follow the advisories more closely. But some people argue that's the wrong way to tackle the problem.
"Culturally-relevant" fish advisories
In 2008, Valoree Gagnon was still an undergraduate student at Michigan Technological University. She learned that toxic chemicals like mercury and PCBs build up in fish in the region. And she learned that not everyone limits their fish intake, especially tribal communities.
"They were consuming fish at rates that were above human health criteria, and that was a really big concern for me," she says.
Once she began grad school, she thought she had a plan. For her master's research, she started talking to members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
"Early on, I wanted to know more about that culture in order to create what is called a culturally relevant fish consumption advisory, and so in what way could I help community members make choices associated with fish consumption that were safer?" she explains.
Then she had a conversation that changed her perspective.
"I sat down to talk with an elder woman, and she was almost 80 years old. And first, you know, you go through the process of sharing your research and, you know, how important your research is," she says.
But the woman stopped her.
"And she said ‘well, let me just tell YOU something. Don't you be another one of those people to come in here and tell us to stop eating our fish. Why don't you go back there and tell them to stop polluting our waters?'"
When fish advisories were first issued in the early 1970's, they were supposed to be temporary.
In the 1990's, agencies began trying to make the advisories "culturally relevant;" to make them something that at-risk groups, like tribal communities, would listen to.
By the end of Gagnon's interviews, she knew that fish advisories could never be relevant to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. They depend on fish for food, culture, and livelihood.
Asking the right questions
Gagnon says indigenous communities can be wary of scientists, and the KBIC was no different.
"They were already experienced with lots of researchers that came to do research, took what they needed, and then they were never heard from again," she explains.
But Gagnon was accountable to the community. She shared her results with the families she interviewed. She compiled the oral histories she recorded with the tribe's historic preservation office.
Not long after, another group of researchers contacted her. They wanted to study chemicals like mercury and PCBs, and they wanted to center their research in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. They knew Gagnon had a relationship with the tribe, and they knew they needed her help to work there.
She agreed, but she wanted to make sure that this time, the right questions were asked from the beginning. Before the new research proposal was even submitted, she consulted the tribe.
Once funding was secured, she and the other researchers held a community workshop to formulate their questions. They invited people from the tribe, other universities, and government agencies.
The result was a research question that actually was relevant to the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community: "When can we eat the fish?"
Specifically, when could they eat fish as often as their ancestors had done for generations?
When can we eat the fish?
It's hard to know exactly when the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community will be able to eat as much fish as they want. But, it probably won't be in our lifetime. Especially if we stay on our current path.
Small-scale gold production is the world's largest source of mercury emissions, followed by stationary fossil fuel combustion.
There are lots of chemicals involved, including mercury, which comes mainly from fossil fuel combustion and metal processing, and PCBs, which are emitted from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. These chemicals can travel long distances and stay in the environment for decades.
Mercury is particularly relevant right now because of some policies that are currently on the table.
The researchers defined different ways mercury policies might go, and for each possibility, made predictions of mercury emissions out to 2050. Then they predicted concentrations in the air, the water, and finally, the fish.
Noel Urban is a professor at Michigan Tech. He worked with Gagnon and others on this project.
"For mercury, what we found is that some of the policies that are in place now and that are in consideration now would not be adequate to protect the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in particular," he says.
Global emissions limits currently under consideration were predicted to only decrease mercury concentrations by 11% in fish in the Upper Peninsula by 2050.
As of 2010, China led the world in mercury emissions.
Even if mercury emissions were to stop tomorrow, concentrations were predicted to decrease by about two thirds over that same time period.
In it for the long term
The bottom line is: to solve this problem, it will take decades of global action. But this doesn't seem to deter some people, especially tribal members who hold caring for future generations as a cultural value.
Jerry Jondreau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
"These issues are bigger than fixing in a day. It's going to take a long time, it's going to take a concerted effort, but we do this for future generations," he says.
Jondreau's tribe helped fundamentally change how this group of scientists approached the problem of contaminated fish. They're still hopeful the rest of the world will follow suit.
To learn more about this research, visit the project website.