Could eating fish from the Great Lakes become a thing of the past? Environmentalists say it’s very likely, given the levels of toxins dangerous to both fish and people present in the lakes.
A report by the Canadian environmental watchdog group, Environmental Defence, says pollution from industrial, municipal, and agricultural sources poses a serious threat to the ecological health of the Great Lakes.
“We’re getting closer to the point where nobody’s going to be able to eat any of the fish…we understand that it’s not the easiest message to get across,” says Mike Layton, project manager for Environmental Defence.
The report reviewed the data from thirteen regions across the Great Lakes listed in the Ontario Environment Ministry’s Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish . Published every two years, the guide warns consumers about the health risks associated with particular species of fish from specific locations.
The Environmental Defence report, called Up to the Gills, Pollution in the Great Lakes, takes a critical look at the Ontario government guides.
The study focused on the types of predatory sports fish popular among anglers such as Lake Trout, Rainbow Trout, Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, Walleye (Pickerel) Carp, Northern Pike, and Whitefish. Chemicals tend to accumulate in these species since they are higher in the food chain, says the report, with the larger, older fish having higher levels of toxins than the smaller ones.
Describing the Great Lakes as an “international treasure,” the report says the lakes are a unique storehouse of almost 4,000 species of fish, plants, and animals. Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior constitute about 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water.
The lakes generate electricity for homes and industry across a 521,000 km basin and beyond, and support recreational activities for a large population, including anglers and aboriginal communities, along its 17,000 km coastline.
But pollution from industrial, municipal, and agricultural sources poses the greatest threat, says the report, with over 92 billion tons of raw sewage emptying into the Lakes each year from Canadian and U.S. sources.
In 2002 alone, a cocktail of 627 million kilograms of chemical pollution from industry seeped into the lakes. The hazardous chemicals, including methylmercury, PCB’s, Dioxins, furans, and pesticides were released into the air, water, and land of the Great Lakes basin, while five million kilograms washed directly into the water.
The report does not deal with invasive species that have been a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem since the 1800s.
The cumulative build-up of centuries of “legacy pollutants” caused by commercial and urban development along the shores of the Great Lakes “have contaminated many regions so intensely that the fish are longer safe to eat,” says the report.
Layton says people don’t really know what they’re being exposed to when they eat fish from the lakes, adding that those who fish need to take into consideration the size of the fish, and also tell their families where the fish were caught.
“People don’t necessarily see the multitude of connections we have with the water, how important it is for our health,” he says.
Among the four lakes studied in the report—Superior, Erie, Huron, and Ontario—Huron and Ontario often have very restrictive fish consumption advisories, with the situation in some regions becoming “disturbingly more severe.”
“In Lake Ontario, of the 14 advisories that changed between 2005 and 2007, eight have become more severe, only one became less severe, and five were for sizes of fish not previously reported on,” stated the report.
John Steele with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment says a strengthening of guidelines introduced by Health Canada and adopted by the province “has resulted in a slight increase in advisories in certain areas in Ontario.”
Steele says government programs initiated over the last 20 years have resulted in less contaminants in fish.
“For example, the elimination of the manufacturing of PCBs has reduced the levels of this contamination in fish, but it will take many more years to see the total elimination of this substance in Ontario’s sport fish,” he says. Considering that more than 30 per cent of Canadians consume Great Lakes water and fifty per cent of the country’s manufacturing and trade is based on the lakes, the economic impact of not taking action to clean up the contamination could be serious.
“We’ve got to start looking at the numbers; [the clean-up] is not cheap and it’s not a short-term project. We need to invest for generations,” says Layton, adding that 40 million pounds of sports fish worth $2.5 billion is at stake.
Jean Langlois, National Campaign Director for the Sierra Club, says the bodies that were set up to oversee the management of the Great Lakes lack financing and political support.
“Canadian and U.S. governments have failed to fix the problem that was created by human actions,” he says, pointing out that Transport Canada’s new shipping regulations preventing dumping raw sewage into the Great Lakes for small boats will exempt the big ships for another five years.
Langlois says the failure of governments to clean up the Great Lakes is also a fundamental violation of Aboriginal fishing rights and their way of life.
The Environment Canada website says a renewed Canada-Ontario Agreement regarding the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem for 2007-2010 is now in place for a period of three years and “will contribute to meeting Canada’s obligations under the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement which is currently under review by both countries.”
Layton says the Ontario government is taking the eight recommendations in the report seriously. Some of the recommendations include: developing a public record of the levels of chemical contamination of fish in the Great Lakes and water toxicity, a strict timeline for reducing chemicals dumped into the lakes, and new national enforceable standards for sewage treatment.