Researchers and Indigenous community work together to determine fish safety for consumption

Monday, January 28, 2019

View of lake from tip of canoe.

Food security is an urgent and growing concern for Indigenous populations in Canada. Environmental change in aquatic ecosystems can impact the health of fish and the communities that rely on those fish in many ways. Some of those ways can involve exposure to contaminants like mercury.

Working with the Fort Albany First Nation, a subarctic community in northern Ontario, a team of University of Waterloo researchers will help answer one of the most critical questions from Indigenous people in northern Ontario: How safe are fish to eat?

This project is one of six new co-led Indigenous projects that are part of the Global Water Futures program,  transforming the way communities, governments and industries in Canada prepare for and manage increasing water-related threats.

“Mercury is of particular concern in aquatic ecosystems as elevated methylmercury concentrations have been documented in several fish species such as Walleye, Northern Pike, and Lake Trout which are regularly harvested across Canada,” said lead researcher Brian Laird. “Consumption of fish often represents the largest source of mercury to humans, and prolonged exposure to mercury can cause permanent adverse effects to the neurological, immune, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems; the developing fetus and children are particularly vulnerable.”

The project will explore the balance between contaminant risks and nutrient benefits in traditional foods as well as the links between contaminant levels in the environment, human behaviour patterns, and human exposure, and the impact on food security.

“To understand the long-term sustainability of wild-harvested fish as a healthy food resource in the face of climate change, co-located environmental, human behaviour, and food security data are crucial,” said Laird. “Through this process, we, together with our partners, will develop a model that predicts how effects of climate-induced change in Canadian lakes will affect fish health, human health, and food security for Indigenous peoples.”

The team is lead by Brian Laird, a professor the School of Public Health and Health Systems, and includes professors Kelly Skinner (School of Public Health and Health Systems) and biologist Heidi Swanson. All three Waterloo professors are also members of the Water Institute.

Ms. Virginia Sutherland is the Senior Environmental Coordinator, Mushkegowuk Tribal Council and Indigenous co-principal investigator on the project.

Learn more about FIShNET (Fish & IndigenouS NorthErn health).

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