More fish contaminated

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According to new information that the Public Health Department of Cree Health Board and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) received from Hydro-Québec, there has been a significant rise in mercury in some fish found in the Eastmain-1 and Opinaca reservoirs.

“The mercury has increased in all of the fish but the impact of the contamination is not the same, depending on the fish’s diet,” said Dr. Laura Atikessé, an environmental health officer from the CBHSSJB’s Public Health Department.

Since Hydro-Québec is responsible for testing water quality and marine-life health throughout Eeyou Istchee because of their hydroelectricity development projects, when changes happen, the CBHSSJB is informed to pass the information on to the public.

“The non-predatory fish have less mercury in their systems because they only eat insects or plants but the bigger fish that eat other fish will accumulate more mercury within their systems. For example, with the new testing we’ve done in the Eastmain and Opinaca reservoirs, all of the levels have increased and there is more mercury in their flesh,” said Atikessé.

According to the Department of Public Health, predatory fish from the Eastmain and Opinaca reservoirs are being affected as well as those found as far as two to three kilometres downstream but the contamination warning ends there. Neither Public Health nor Hydro-Québec are anticipating that fish in Lake Boyd, Sakami and the LG-2 Reservoir will see a rise in mercury levels.

Because consumption of high levels of organic or metallic mercury can be particularly harmful to human health, it is now being recommended that predatory fish such as pike, walleye, lake trout and bottom feeders like burbot be avoided for consumption until such time as the high mercury levels are no longer being detected.

At the same time, Atikessé stressed that the current contamination warnings are no need for panic as there are plenty of species of fish that remain safe for human consumption such as cisco, lake white fish, sturgeon and speckled trout from those reservoirs and surrounding area.

According to the Department of Public Health, two or more of the aforementioned fish should be consumed by Crees weekly as part of a healthy diet. For those who still desire the occasional predatory fish, one serving a month can still be permissible. However, it is recommended that the smaller rather than larger variety of these fish be chosen since they will likely contain less mercury.

For example, when Hydro conducted tests on pike in the Opinaca Reservoir in 2004, the fish’s flesh tested at 1.65 parts per million (ppm). Because the level was high, pike fell into the occasional consumption category. When pike from the same area were tested in 2009, the level had surged to 2.01 ppm, which placed pike in the “not recommended for human consumption” category.

Hydro-Québec is required to sample fish from areas where they have developments and their surroundings as part of the certificate of authorization for the Eastmain-1-A/Rupert development project from the Quebec Ministry of the Environment.

While Hydro-Québec’s projects may have contributed to the current rise in mercury levels, there is also a certain baseline natural mercury level in fish. At the same time, mercury emitted from smokestacks as a result of industrial production, including coal-based electricity generating plants in other provinces and the United States, also gets blown up north by prevailing winds. The result is an increased amount of mercury in the fish from contaminants being blown onto the land and bodies of water in the north.

Though the contamination warning has been made for the Eastmain and Opinaca reservoirs, Atikessé said the warning is only for these areas. At that, these warnings are not permanent as over time the mercury levels will decline, as in the case of the La Grande complex. She explained the levels have actually dropped in non-predatory fish in the La Grande complex to near normal levels because the area has been impounded for 20-30 years.

Though the information may be a little difficult to swallow, in light of what has happened with the mercury levels in La Grande, there is hope yet for these reservoirs.


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