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Are seals safe to eat?

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 28, 2012

When Pond Inlet environmental technology program (ETP) instructor Shelly Elverum and three of her students attended the International Polar Year (IPY) conference in Montreal last month, they heard something that blew them away.

NNSL photo/graphic

Pond Inlet ETP students Sam Arreak, Terry Kalluk, Brian Koonoo from Parks Canada, and students James Simonee and Enookie Inuarak watch instructor Chantal Begin prepare to dive in a crack near the floe edge. Student Enookie Inuarak also put on the dry suit and dove to observe organisms in the water. - Photo courtesy of Shelly Elverum

"In Greenland, scientists are recommending women of childbearing age not eat seal because of the levels of mercury and other contaminants in it," Elverum heard. As scientists-in-training, the group wanted to know if the situation on this side of Baffin Bay was any different.

"When the guys came back and reported this, the students were really inspired to learn more about this issue, so we contacted Environment Canada and they sent us sampling kits," she said.

Now the group of 13 men is collecting samples from seals to evaluate contamination in the Arctic. It's work Environment Canada has been doing for a while, she said, "but might not have involved people in the way that we're involving it. And what is the actual risk to people here?"

Student Sam Arreak, 34, has limited his country food consumption since he was 14, when he first learned of the problem.

"Women's organizations and our local organizations are encouraging Inuit to eat country food, and we just got the results from Greenland saying that they shouldn't eat country food because it might affect their (babies') growth, especially brain development and learning behaviours and ability to learn their own language because of the effects of mercury," Arreak said. "We really want to find the answers. We're approaching it cautiously and safely."

The alarm was sounded by Dr. Henning Sloth Pedersen, the chief medical officer at Queen Ingrid's Hospital in Nuuk, Greenland.

Nunavut News/North could not reach Pedersen for comment.

Climate change could be making the situation worse, Nature Geoscience reported May 20. In a report called "Riverine source of Arctic Ocean mercury inferred from atmospheric observations," researchers found mercury concentrations peak in summer, and their simulations show circumpolar rivers are the dominant source for mercury pollution.

That could be a concern as climate change increases snow, ice and permafrost melt, pouring mercury into the ocean, the report noted.

"Arctic Ocean mercury concentrations could be highly sensitive to climate-induced changes in river flow, and to increases in the mobility of mercury in soils, for example, as a result of permafrost thaw and forest fires," it stated.

Despite these concerns, the GN recommends Nunavummiut eat country food to fight diabetes and other problems.

"When I raised that at IPY that the Government of Nunavut encourages people in prenatal classes to eat seal for iron levels, the guy from Greenland said, 'Your government is acting unethically,'" Elverum said. "In light of all the data that's out there, this is a really bad and risky thing to be doing."

Looking for help to find answers, the students reached out to two marine biologists - University of South Florida instructor Chantal Begin and Simon Fraser University PhD student Stephanie Green - who were coming to teach earlier this month. During their trip, they went under the ice to recover samples of the smallest organisms, which collect mercury and other contaminants which bio-accumulate higher in the food chain, in mammals such as seals, polar bears, whales, and humans.

To help the students get answers, Begin and Green approached Environment Canada, which took samples in 2004 and 2009 and was eager for more.

"It creates a great partnership because they don't know the local hunters, and the local hunters are often hesitant to co-operate with scientists because they think, 'If I give a sample, they're going to tell me I can't hunt or can't eat it,'" Begin said. "It created a trusting relationship about what we're going to do. The students want to know if they should be concerned for their kids or their wives who are pregnant."

Green believes it's important for researchers to tap into local talent, especially in remote locations.

"With reduced funding, it's becoming a situation where we all have to work together to get the information to make those informed decisions," she said. "These guys are a great conduit because they're involved in the research, they get the results, and they can understand the data, and can then pass it on to the community."

Trevor Arreak, 20, is eager to be part of the discussion.

"We will inform people who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant not to eat as much seal," if the results show it's not safe, he said. "Some people still depend on and only eat seal during the springtime, when they're abundant and easy to get."

Elverum notes that balance between safety and food security is important to strike.

"A lot of people here don't have a choice in what they're eating," she said. "Having science done from an Inuit perspective, having complete Inuit involvement, the results you get are totally grassroots."

Seeing a great deal of interest from her students, Elverum hopes to find funding to continue the research after they graduate in December.

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