Indigenous co-principal investigator:

  • Virginia Sutherland, senior environmental coordinator, Mushkegowuk Council, Timmins, ON | | 705-268-3594 (x226) 

Academic co-principal investigators:

  • Brian Laird, assistant professor, School of Public Health and Health Systems, University of Waterloo, | 519-888-4567 (x32720)

Communities involved:

Fort Albany First Nation, a subarctic community in northern Ontario.

Project overview

The problem:

Food security is an urgent and growing concern for Indigenous populations in Canada. Environmental change in aquatic ecosystems can impact fish health in many ways, including effects on metabolism and bioenergetics, trophic ecology, immune responses to pathogens and parasites, and exposure to contaminants, such as mercury. Mercury is of particular concern in aquatic ecosystems because the methylated form (methylmercury; MeHg) bioaccumulates and biomagnifies, and elevated methylmercury concentrations have been documented in several of the predatory fish species (e.g.Walleye, Northern Pike, Lake Trout) regularly harvested across Canada. Mercury concentrations in fish reflect a complex array of often-interacting variables, such as atmospheric deposition patterns, watershed characteristics, water chemistry, and fish age, size, and trophic ecology. Many current spatial and temporal patterns in fish mercury concentrations remain poorly understood, and variables that determine fish mercury concentrations are also subject to climate and development-induced change. Consumption of fish often represents the largest source of mercury to humans, and prolonged human exposure to mercury can lead to permanent adverse effects to the human neurological, immune, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems; the developing fetus and children are particularly vulnerable.

The plan:

In partnership with Indigenous communities in other northern regions in Canada, the FIShNET team is currently researching the: 1) health concerns and risk perceptions among community members; 2) environmental determinants of mercury and nutrients in wild-harvested fish; 3) balance between contaminant risks and nutrient benefits in traditional foods; 4) links between contaminant levels in the environment, human behavior patterns, and human exposure; and 5) access to traditional food and the impact on food security. Building upon this collective work, our proposed GWF Indigenous Research Strategy project will expand the geographic scope and generalizability of results for community partners in northern Ontario. 

The outcome:

FIShNET will help answer one of the most critical questions from Indigenous people in northern Ontario: How safe are fish to eat? Answering this question is particularly challenging in communities for which there is limited human biomonitoring data. 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. By identifying and filling regional data gaps, FIShNET will provide the complementary, co-located data required to answer these questions. Through this process, FIShNET will allow for discussions and input from partners to develop a plan for building and validating models that predict how effects of climate-induced change in Canadian lakes will affect fish health, human health, and food security for Indigenous peoples. Along with discussions about health and risk communication, this will also provide a preliminary framework for future data visualization tools.