If you eat wild caught fish from Michigan, you might know about fish consumption advisories. They’re recommended limits on safe amounts of fish to eat, and they're necessary because toxic chemicals build up in fish in the Great Lakes and inland lakes and streams.
What you might not know is that toxic exposure from fish consumption for indigenous communities in the Great Lakes is two to thirteen times the national average. Because fish are so important to a traditional diet, tribes in the region face a difficult choice between avoiding toxic chemicals and eating the way they have for generations.
Inseparable from Ojibwe culture
"Boozhoo. Gidagaa-bizhiw nindizhinikaaz. Ajijaak indoodem. Wiikwedong indoonjiba. Ojibwe anishinaabe inini indaw."
Jerry Jondreau, speaking Ojibwemowin, tells me his name, that he's Ojibwe, crane clan, and that he's a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which is situated on Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We’re at a popular local restaurant called the Hilltop in the nearby village of L’Anse. Over coffee, he tells me that fish are inseparable from Ojibwe culture.
"So fish has been a primary food source for our people for a very long time. We have a lunar calendar that talks about the different times of the year when we're harvesting foods and when different things are going on, and one of the things that we've done for a very long time is fish," he says. "So, you can actually fish during all the seasons. Even when the ice is on, we were setting gill nets underneath the ice. So, when you lead a life that is dependent on the environment and harvesting your own foods, having the ability to access fish year round is very important to self-preservation."
In Jondreau’s community, more than 75% of tribal members say fish is a primary source of subsistence. He tells me fish are a good choice for health, and important to the tribe's economic independence.
"So we were providing food to some of the French fur traders early on, and then that continued for a long time, and actually we still have commercial fishermen out there on Lake Superior right now, and we also have subsistence fishermen that are out there as well. So, this is something that's inseparable from our identity. It's who we are," he explains.
A battle for treaty rights
Back in 1842, a group of Ojibwe tribes signed the first Treaty of LaPointe. They ceded tens of millions of acres of land to the U.S. federal government, but reserved their rights to hunt, fish and gather within that territory.
For decades, those rights were not honored by the State of Michigan. Tribal members were ticketed and arrested. But, they continued to fish, knowing that state law shouldn't overrule a treaty between sovereign nations.
In 1965, tribal leaders from Keweenaw Bay decided the next time the state tried to punish one of their fishermen, they would challenge it in court. Later that year, Jerry Jondreau's grandfather, Boyzie Jondreau, was arrested with four trout harvested out-of-season.
"They were going to try to confiscate those fish. But those fish were going to be feeding a hungry family. You don't throw away food, there's no respect in that," he says.
Jondreau's grandfather was found guilty and appealed his case.
"It finally made its way up to the Supreme Court of Michigan, and that is where the justice actually sided with my grandfather, because they went into the treaties and they started looking at the language that's in the treaties," he says. "We maintain the ability to hunt, fish, and gather. That's what it says in the Treaty, and the Treaty according to the Constitution of the United States says that those treaties are the supreme law of the land."
In 1971, the Michigan Supreme Court reaffirmed the treaty rights that had been guaranteed 130 years before.
A toxic burden
Around this same time, an invisible problem emerged: toxic contamination of fish by chemicals like methylmercury and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Noel Urban is a professor at Michigan Technological University who studies pollutants cycling through the environment. He tells me the chemicals that build up in fish are still being emitted around the world.
“So mercury's primary sources are coal-fired power plants, mining, metal processing. PCBs are emitted from landfills, from wastewater treatment plants, from transformers that are still in use that have PCBs, agricultural chemicals are also in this so there's a wide variety of sources," he explains.
Some of these chemicals can travel long distances – mercury from China can end up in the Great Lakes basin. And they can stay in the environment for decades once they’re released. Small amounts in the air and water build up in fish high in the food web.
In 1971, the same year the People v. Jondreau was decided, the first fish advisory in the State of Michigan was issued.
Jondreau says some tribal members still have a hard time believing the advisories, and research in the community confirms this.
"There's people within the community that still have a hard time believing that the fish consumption advisories are legitimate. There's some people that feel like once we won that court case and we were able to continue our way of life, this was just another method of the U.S. government to try to dictate what we do in our harvesting, to limit what we do," he says.
Jondreau's partner recently gave birth to their daughter. Fish advisories are most strict for pregnant and nursing women. And he says his family does limit what they eat.
"I think that probably hurts the most, when your baby is growing and you can't feed them the foods that our ancestors have been eating for a very long time and your baby's not getting those benefits from those foods. That really hits home, and it's still really difficult for me to accept that," he says.
Another one of their daughters has allergies to beef, dairy, eggs and wheat. Jerry’s partner, Katy Butterfield, tells me that’s all the more reason to feed her traditional foods – until it becomes dangerous.
“We live on this lake and our fish comes in every day, and our daughter hits her fish capacity by day two. She's past what she should be eating and consuming. And the question always comes, what happens on the other 5 days of the week? And on top of that, what about the other 28 days of that month? So, yeah, it's impacted our family pretty significantly," she says.
Jondreau and Butterfield say they would eat fish nearly every day if they could. But they want people to understand this isn't just an Ojibwe issue – that making fish safer to eat benefits everybody. Butterfield tells me it's not just about her family.
"When I think about 'us' I think about all of the people around in this area, in this region, and it's not just Ojibwe people. If we don't take care of all of our people, our fish people, our four-legged people, our tree people; if we don't take care of those that are here, it's us that are going to suffer in the end. We're going to be the ones who don't make it," she says.
If you want to learn more, researcher Valoree Gagnon has extensively chronicled the KBIC, treaty fishing, and contaminated fish in her journal article Ojibwe Gichigami (“Ojibwa’s Great Sea”): an intersecting history of treaty rights, tribal fish harvesting, and toxic risk in Keweenaw Bay, United States.