BARAGA — The day’s last rays of sunshine illuminated the form of Kathy Smith, comfortably seated in her blue camp chair, fishing pole in hand.
Smith, a Wiikwedong Dazhi-Ojibwe woman, fished on a small inland lake between Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Bay and its namesake peninsula. She cast her line again and again, and the perch in the water kept nibbling away her bait, but she joked it off with a smile.
Smith grew up in a prominent fishing family. She’s a Keweenaw Bay Indian Community citizen, and her community for time immemorial fished the cold waters of Gichi-gami, or Lake Superior.
A cool breeze shifted and blew in from the bay as Smith cast her fishing line once more, and recalled stories from when she would stay awake all night to clean and gut the seasonal smelt that her uncles caught in the springtime run. Those uncles would wade into the icy waters of creeks within reservation boundaries with nothing but a dip net.
“They used to fill those big, silver trash bins with them,” Smith said. “Now, not so much.”
The smelt run amounted to almost nothing this year, she said, and in recent years fishers have been fortunate to catch more than a handful.
Just before the rainbow smelt season this year state health officials warned the public to limit how much of that fish they eat, anyway.
The reason? Emerging PFAS contamination.
In March, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a precautionary consumption guideline for rainbow smelt from Lake Superior; the advisory came after natural resources officials in Wisconsin found and reported elevated levels of legacy chemical PFOS — perfluorooctane sulfonate — in samples of that species caught near the Apostle Islands and off of Port Wing, a shoreline city about 50 miles east of Duluth, Minnesota.
Because Indigenous people living near Lake Superior eat multitudes more than average amounts of fish, they face a choice whether to drastically limit how much they eat traditional foods to avoid poisoning — contamination that leaves the community collectively more susceptible to negative health risks associated with PFAS exposure.
More than 75 percent of KBIC citizens reported in a 2013 study how fish was a primary source of their subsistence.
“It’s hard for the community,” Smith said, explaining how this isn’t the first fish consumption advisory state officials issued for species local Indigenous people historically consume.
In fact, many continue to eat enough fish to far surpass what state health officials consider safe, she said, unwilling to change the way their families have eaten for generations.
“It’s a way of life for them,” Smith said.
Smith likes to eat rainbow smelt tossed in batter and fried, but she said they are particularly good in fish tacos. This season the smelt eluded all those she knows who headed out in the night to dip the creeks.
‘Ties to traditions, culture’
There was a lot of contention and outright racism surrounding tribal fishers and their treaty rights in past decades, said Edward “Eddy” Edwards, third-term KBIC tribal council member.
He became a commercial tribal fisherman in the late-1990s, more than two decades after the Michigan Supreme Court reaffirmed KBIC’s treaty-protected fishing rights in a case that ended years of state criminalization.
Edwards said he often sought lean lake trout for his catches as a way to sustain his family at the time. He was aware of some of the contaminants like mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), but it never affected the need for the fish or prompted worry about how much they ate.
Now there are more fish consumption advisories than ever and in turn, fewer tribal citizens out on the water commercial fishing. There were at least 20 commercial tribal fishers back when Edwards was among them, and now he said there are only a few.
“It’s become normalized to accept poisons in our environment. There’s nothing that can be done about it,” he said.
Fish from Lake Superior are part of his culture’s spiritual webbing of traditions, and now that they’ve been negatively impacted, Edwards said he fears fishing may “become a lost art” in his tribe.
He’s not alone in his worries.
Tribal elder Allen Gauthier said he didn’t grow up fishing, but came to learn the traditional skill for a good reason: he was hungry.
A Marquette fish captain would give Gauthier three fish and a few dollars to help gut and clean the catch, he said, working from “dark until dark” — and they fished every day. He apprenticed for more than two years on the 33-foot boat, learning to set and maintain nets and chase the lake’s schools of fish, until he was named captain of the Bonnie-Lou.
Gauthier said he, like Edwards, worries about the changes in tribal fishing practices, from the days when local Indigenous people ate much more of the seasonally caught fish. The community can certainly survive without fish, but he said life would be unbalanced.
“A strong community has strong ties to their traditions and their cultures,” Gauthier said, pointing out the importance of making decisions that consider the well-being of the next seven generations, a principle at the core of Anishinaabe culture.
Anishinaabe are closely culturally related Indigenous peoples from multiple northeastern woodland tribes across the United States and Canada, including Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Saulteaux, Oji-Cree and Algonquin peoples.
One Michigan-based Native scholar said it’s horrific that many tribes continue to face contamination problems with fish that their members locally harvest and depend upon.
“Tribes did not cause these contamination issues. Native people have long traditions of fishing diverse species of fish, yet acts of settlers, including dams, deforestation, mining, overfishing, and infrastructure development, have affected tribally valued fish populations negatively,” said Kyle Whyte, University of Michigan professor of environment and sustainability.
Whyte is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, among other leadership roles.
“From the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence River, Indigenous peoples have faced health risks from contaminated fish for decades. At the same time, fish advisories often play the role of simply telling Native people to stop harvesting and consuming species that are significant in terms of nutrition, local access, family and culture, and treaty rights and sovereignty,” Whyte said. “Such advisories can silence Tribal voices calling for the end to the risk factors themselves.”
Data and ongoing research
Officials with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2019 collected rainbow smelt from Lake Superior that tested positive for high levels of PFOS, a legacy pollutant that often entered the environment through spills of PFAS-laden materials like firefighting foam.
PFAS are a group of thousands of man-made chemicals with widespread uses for decades in products such as non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers and stain- or water-resistant materials.
Exposure to these per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances increase the risk of health problems such as increased high blood-pressure and cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, pre-eclampsia in pregnancy, decreases in birth weights and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The fish consumption advisory for Lake Superior rainbow smelt issued by both Michigan and Wisconsin is the only one in the Great Lakes connected to PFAS pollution.
“We are collecting additional fish, but results from those will not be available until sometime in 2022,” said Sean Strom, environmental toxicologist with the Wisconsin DNR.
“Other programs within our agency are investigating potential sources, but to my knowledge, nothing has been identified yet,” he said.
In Michigan, health officials until recently advised no more than 12 servings of smelt per month based on mercury levels. Now monthly servings of smelt specifically from Lake Superior are advised at a single, 8 ounce portion for adults and half or even a quarter of that for children, but this time because of PFAS contamination.
Marcus Wasilevich, the acting manager of the MDHHS toxicology and assessment section, said the Wisconsin data adhered to Michigan’s standards to limit fish consumption.
“Better safe than sorry and out of an abundance of caution we issued the precautionary consumption guideline,” he said.
Since then, state officials worked with federal and tribal authorities to collect smelt from six places across the Keweenaw Peninsula, including inland lakes and tributaries to Lake Superior. Smelt also were collected from inland lakes in the Lower Peninsula near Roscommon and Kalamazoo, as well as two rivers in the Lake Huron watershed.
Some samples still await analysis and more are yet to be collected, Wasilevich said.
Data is expected to come back by autumn this year and will undergo quality assurance review by state toxicologists in time for public notice before the 2022 spring smelt run, he said.
They also are looking at PFAS levels in other species of fish taken from the same waters. The contaminants are expected to be found now that they are considered ubiquitous in the environment, Wasilevich said.
“You can’t escape it,” he said. “It’s in our background noise. It’s part of our society and will be part of our environment for a long time to come.”
There’s a wrong public impression that because the Great Lakes are so large and vast, they can take whatever pollutants are discharged into them, said one national environmental expert.
Cameron Davis currently serves as vice president at GEI Consultants and was formerly senior advisor to two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrators. He also served as liaison to Congress on Great Lakes matters and was a lead negotiator with the U.S. State Department in the 2012 U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Davis said North America’s freshwater inland seas will always need maintenance after the impacts of decades of human-caused contamination.
“We are at the point where the Great Lakes are going to need perpetual restoration,” he said, “if we want them to support us as people.”
Now silent threats like PFAS and other toxic pollutants are the latest hazard to the natural resource Davis described as “unparalleled in the world.”
“The Great Lakes are living organisms and need ongoing maintenance to live,” he said.
Tribal officials recognize that reality, too.
Evelyn Ravindran, KBIC’s natural resources director, said the community is challenged by a complex nexus of emerging contaminants that threaten traditional tribal ways of life, whether heavy metals, man-made chemicals or legacy mining waste like copper-infused stamp sand deposits. That collectively results in negative impacts on their ability to pass down specific knowledge about the natural environment, she said.
It’s why the tribe prioritizes environmental restoration efforts, Ravindran said, as well as the responsibility to be good stewards for the land and water.
“But to also speak for the animal nations that aren’t in the council of men, and for the neighboring tribal nations that share the environment with them,” she said.
Ravindran said she’s hopeful smelt samples tribal anglers helped collect will offer good insight into PFAS contamination that may affect the community.
“There’s a responsibility to the fish nation, because they have a right to live in healthy, clean water and have a good place to live, too,” she said.
Toxicity advisories, and realities
The reality is more than one of the world’s toxic compounds are likely present in Great Lakes fish.
That’s according to Emily Shaw, a doctoral environmental engineering student at Michigan Technological University in the Keweenaw. Her research into quantifying the mixture of toxicity in fish tissue among legacy compounds such as PCBs, dioxins, mercury and more, showed frequently they all could be found in the same fish. She studied walleye, carp, and both large- and small-mouth bass as predator fish, plus those more exposed to bottomlands sediments.
The fish become more problematic when they are exposed to multiple contaminants, Shaw said.
The majority of Lake Superior fish sampled in her research exceeded safe consumption guidelines, and that’s particularly harmful for subsistence fishers, she said, with whom warnings don’t always work.
“Telling people to not eat fish ignores a lot of realities,” Shaw said.
While fish-eating advisories are conducive for some people, research shows many times those who rely on fishing to feed themselves and their families pay the advice little attention.
“In some cases, people are simply unaware of local advisories or have trouble understanding them. In other cases, advisories are ineffective primarily because people are unwilling to forego the many benefits that fishing and consuming fish provide their families and communities,” wrote Valoree Gagnon, M-Tech research assistant professor, in a paper published with two additional Great Lakes Research Center academics.
“As a result, some sensitive and vulnerable populations remain dependent on fish. In short, many people do not, cannot, or will not follow advisory recommendations. The reliance on fish for economic, social, and cultural well-being increases health risks due to contaminants such as PCBs and mercury,” she wrote.
Gagnon argued fish consumption advisories should not be seen as a permanent policy to address widespread fish contamination.
State health officials know those who depend on fish for subsistence often consume more than recommended amounts which exposes them to disproportionately greater health risks, and Wasilevich said that’s a major concern.
Those potentially negative health effects can be expected to be long-term and remain hidden for decades — the sort those who’ve been exposed “won’t see for a while,” he said.
That means the cultural damage to Indigenous people like KBIC citizens will also largely remain unknown for a long time to come, Edwards said.
“It’s subtle, but it’s invasive and impactful,” he said.