Prior to the fish advisories issued in the 1980s, fishing had been a central part of the diet, economy, and social culture of Akwesasne for centuries. More than just a means of acquiring a dietary mainstay, fishing was described by community members as a livelihood, a lifestyle, and a culture. Almost everyone I spoke to in the community had a connection in some way to fish or fishing. The process of catching and cooking fish out of the river was at the root of many of the interviewees’ childhoods and something that connected them to their ancestors. People in their 50s on up through their 90s recalled with youthful excitement their childhood experiences of going to the fish boxes that each family kept on the shore of the river to pull out the evening’s supper. People fondly reminisced about fishing with their fathers on the river, helping their fathers prepare fishing equipment, or helping their mothers clean and cook the fish. Species such as sturgeon, perch, and bullhead were mentioned most frequently, and they were eaten smoked or fried. Fish was eaten several times a week for an ordinary dinner, and in large quantities at “fish fries” to celebrate special occasions and family gatherings.
When fish advisories were issued that called for people to diminish or eliminate fish from their diet, many residents felt that they had lost more than just omega-3 fatty acids from their diet; another part of their culture was being eroded by outside influences. A cessation in fishing gradually diminished Mohawk culture in several ways. As Henry Lickers describes, the language and culture around tying knots in nets as well as the social interactions that occurred around the process of creating these nets are lost when there is no longer a use for those nets:
People forget, in their own culture, what you call the knot that you tie in a net. And so, a whole section of your language and culture is lost because no one is tying those nets anymore. The interrelation between men and women, when they tied nets, the relationship between adults or elders and young people, as they tied nets together, the stories… that whole social infrastructure that was around the fabrication of that net disappeared (interview 10).
Similarly, the language around the names and descriptions of certain fish is lost. As one older man described to me, “A lot of that has been forgotten, the fish names in our language. Because a lot of the fishermen when they go fishing they talk about their Indian names to them, there is no English part of it, but that has been sort of forgotten now” (interview 39). One young mother, Randi, described how even though the youth were learning the Mohawk language, words related to activities no longer widely practiced, like fishing, “are never going to be spoke again because those things are now in the past… so only very elderly people are going to know those words, so that’s a loss” (interview 54).
Changes in community fish consumption
Data gathered during the health studies demonstrated a decrease in fish consumption among pregnant women (Fitzgerald et al. 1995, 2004) and Mohawk men (Fitzgerald et al. 1999). These papers cite fish advisories as the reason for the decline in fish consumption. Many of the Akwesasne community members I interviewed also described a decline in fish consumption, attributed to the fish advisories, but also to visual changes in the fish and a diminished fish population. On the other hand, some have maintained fish consumption based on a cultural connection that ties them to fish or because they felt their age precluded them from the more pressing reproductive and developmental concerns associated with the main target demographic of the fish advisories.
When asked whether they still ate local fish, three-quarters of the interviewees I spoke with (37 out of 50) replied that they had either dramatically decreased or entirely ceased their local fish consumption, even though for most of them it was previously an important part of their diet. Of those who had decreased fish consumption, eight interviewees described fish meals as a rare, special occasion treat. As Howard, an elder in his 80s explained, “I eat fish once or twice a year, not like everyday” (interview 13). Another woman remarked that when she does have a little bit of fish on these occasions, she worries, “You know in the back of your mind that you’re going to be glowing (laughs). You know what I mean? You know it is there, the fear is still there” (interview 27). Others have sworn off fish entirely and express aversion even to the idea. As Gina described, the only circumstance under which she would eat local fish would be, “Maybe if somebody raised them and then threw them in the river and you caught them that same day” (interview 4). Even though the fish advisories targeted mainly women of childbearing age and children, three of the men I spoke with shared what they saw as a common sentiment among men: if it was bad for the women, they should not eat it either. Nineteen (19) of the interviewees specified that not only had they given up eating fish, but so had the rest of their families.
Even prior to the announcement of fish advisories, which 29 interviewees indicated to me was what drove them from eating fish, some residents began noticing or hearing about visual clues that fish were not safe. One Raquette Point resident, Mark, described to me catching “fish with humongous tumors on them,” or “funny color eyes” (interview 34). Others (n = 6) recalled how the fishermen were catching fish with black spots on them, with bugs inside, or with sores. Another man, Robert (interview 32), remembered cutting open fish with black spines, which he described as resulting from heavy metals contamination. Gina recollected, “We’d see like a big black spot on them or a glob of green and they would tell us that’s what the PCBs are doing” (interview 4). Whether or not all of these physical changes witnessed in the fish can be attributed to PCBs is debatable, but more importantly, seeing or hearing about these physical deformities discouraged Mohawks from eating local fish.
Problematically, not all contaminated fish showed such visual cues. In 1985, NY State wildlife epidemiologist Ward Stone took samples of a sturgeon caught by Mohawk fishermen in order to test it for PCBs. When he came back with his results, which showed the fish to contain levels of PCBs above what the USDA considered safe for consumption, he was aghast to learn that the fishermen had already eaten the sturgeon.
The fact that fish could be contaminated without showing visible evidence led many community members for whom it was financially feasible (including 11 of these interviewees) to rely solely on outside sources of fish. For three related interviewees, this fish was coming from as far away as British Columbia. For three others it was from other communities nearby, such as Tyendinaga.e Robert explained how he gets his perch “out of upper Canada where they’re not polluted yet” (interview 32). Some realized the irony in that they were probably still consuming contamination, just from another place they were less familiar with. Chris, an iron worker who had spent most of his life in Akwesasne but had also traveled extensively, exclaimed how “people think that if the fish comes from someplace else rather than right here, then it is ok. They don’t realize every Great Lake dumps into the next Great Lake, which dumps into the St. Lawrence River. It is one big sewer” (interview 29). To avoid even the concern, four interviewees reported that they would only eat fish from the supermarket. As Alice, a lab technician for the health clinic described, “So we end up being supermarket Indians, buying tilapia from Hannaford’s, not so much perch or walleye” (interview 62). For those who can afford to buy fish from outside the community this helped to satisfy the nutritional void created by the fish advisories, but not some of the social and cultural roles described earlier.
Henry Lickers, who works for the MCA Department of Environment, described the rapid decline in fish consumption since moving to the community 30 years ago. When he first arrived in the community, he reports that 90% of the people he visited were eating fish. Then as the fish advisories became more prominent, people began changing their behavior. When he would stop by their house at dinnertime:
Suddenly, the old man or whoever it is was cooking the fish would put it in the cupboard and shut the door. And then they would be cooking something else, you know. “Well, you know, Henry has been talking about this. And you don’t want to show him that you don’t believe what he’s talking about, because I really like fish, you know. And besides, I’m over 60, and it’s not going to hurt me. And I don’t want to have any more kids, so I’m okay.” But you got funny things like that occurring (interview 10).
Henry no longer eats fish because he feels that he has a responsibility to set an example: “I don’t eat fish from the St. Lawrence. I believe the same way, if people saw me eating, then they would say ‘oh, then we can go back.’ And I don’t think that that’s responsible. If I’m going to tell them not to, well then I better not as well.” At the same time, he recognized that some people do still eat fish, even if they do not openly admit it. It is possible that for the earlier cited studies in which Fitzgerald was documenting a decline in fish consumption, as well as in the interviews I was conducting, that people under-reported their fish consumption because they recognize that according to the fish advisories they are not supposed to be eating fish, and they do not want to be judged for their choices.
One-quarter of the interviewees (13 out of 50) I asked about fish consumption expressed that they continued to eat local fish because they felt a cultural obligation to do so (n = 4), were not concerned about the warnings based on personal experiences (n = 4), or have decided to resume fish consumption now that they are no longer in their child-bearing years (n = 5). Richard described to me the traditional connection and responsibility that Mohawks and the fish have to each other, and for this reason, he continues to eat the fish. As he described, the Creator put the food in the water:
We give thanks for that food and we have to use it… I mean it doesn’t make sense scientifically, but it makes sense spiritually and mentally that you should eat that, you know. You can’t just put it aside and say, “well your work is not good enough,” or something, you know? They’re still given out what their original instructions were, and it’s us that are at fault, it’s our fault that they’re like that, you know (interview 20).
Even though as a Mohawk he is not responsible for the contamination that has affected the fish, as a human being he is implicated in the problem, and therefore it is even more important that he works to maintain this relationship with the fish. Because the job given by the Creator to fish is to offer themselves as food, and the job given to humans is to respectfully harvest these fish, people like Richard who are working to maintain tradition feel obligated to maintain these roles. I heard similar narratives around the preservation of heritage seed varieties: the duty of these seeds is to sprout every spring, and the duty of humans is to plant them. If Mohawks fail to plant these seeds, “the plants will go back to the Sky World because they volunteered to come to the earth to help man to survive” (Brenda, interview 21). The concerns around the disuse of fish and heritage seed varieties stem back to cultural stories about ungrateful humans who have their food sources taken from them and who only regain them after learning lessons about maintaining ceremonies and traditional roles.
For some community members, an impression that the site remediation has led to lower levels of contamination in the fish or a nuanced understanding of more and less contaminated species and methods of preparation has contributed to their choice to eat local fish. One woman, who worked on the environmental health studies as a field assistant and was part of ATFE, described how her family continued to eat fish, and her kids “love it. They eat it whenever they can get it. I know that the area has been remediated and the fish isn’t that bad anymore. So I hadn’t told them not to eat it. So we just continue” (interview 26). Another ATFE member, Joyce, described how “the levels with the fish going down, the PCB levels going down…I feel more comfortable eating fish now. So I don’t think I’m going to pick up that much contamination with PCBs anymore” (interview 16). Another woman, Randi, who had relatives who worked on the health studies and with ATFE, noted that many people in the community have vilified the consumption of all fish. She noted that if caught eating local fish, pregnant women could expect a similar reaction as though they were smoking or drinking. She expressed disappointment that the only lesson that people seemed to take away from the health studies is not to eat fish:
I feel like sometimes I could try to educate people about what fish is good for you and what is bad for you, but sometimes it is just, why bother? You know my 30-second conversation is not going to undo 12 years of ingrained messages—“don’t eat any more fish”… So I don’t fight it too much, I just eat my fish in private (interview 54).
She laughed that people could eat fast food and then criticize her for eating fish. Similarly, an individual employed by the Environment Division stated that he felt the nutritional benefits of fish outweighed the potential contamination in fish since the beginning of the remediation of the industrial sites.
For other community members, personal and family experience with fish that have not led to ill health has encouraged them to continue to eat local fish. Agnes, who also worked on the environmental health studies, described how “we were brought up by the river and on the river. We were brought up to fish, we were brought up to swim in the river, and we were brought up on a boat. I don’t have no fear of contamination. It was just a part of my life” (interview 59). She still eats fish as well. Nelson, a farmer and construction worker from the Snye region of the reservation, expressed skepticism towards all of the fish advisories because “we’ve been fishing all of our lives and we’re still here. And my aunt, we just buried her last week. My great aunt was 102” (interview 40).
To a great extent, fish consumption in the community is divided along generational lines. In several families, members described to me that younger women who were planning to have children would not eat fish, but older women would go back to eating fish. For example, as Brenda, who is in her 50s, expressed, “I’m not young anymore so it doesn’t matter. I eat the fish” (interview 21). Elizabeth, who is also in her 50s, also described how she went ten years without eating fish and would not let her kids have any. But she has gone back to it recently: “Let’s just say I’m getting older now. I don’t care, I love fish” (interview 22). However, even though this more advanced generation has returned to fish consumption, many interviewees were not convinced that the younger generation, even if given the chance, would eat fish. Middle-aged and older community members who had gone back to eating fish noted that they had not raised their kids to do so because of the warnings, and now they “didn’t develop a taste for it” as Joyce describes. Seven interviewees described how their children and grandchildren currently had no desire to eat fish and are unlikely to show an interest in it even if it were determined to be clean at some point. As Agnes described, “They weren’t brought up with the fish so they’re not going to turn around and change their ways” (interview 59).
Even aside from the issue of contamination, ten of the community members I spoke with expressed the opinion that the fish population is too low to support the community. As Joyce, whose father was a fisherman, noted, “There isn’t enough of a fish population to make a living off of anymore.” She and others referred to the cormorant, a voracious bird that is new to the area and has been decimating fish stocks, especially the perch populations. Others pointed to the dams and locks now in place on the St. Lawrence River that prevent the fish from getting upstream and spawning as they once did. Ernie, a 90-year-old elder who witnessed the transformation of the St. Lawrence from a river to a seaway, described how, in the process of dredging channels and blasting through rock ledges in the river, the fish spawning grounds were destroyed.
[The blasting of rocks] affected the spawning grounds of fish, not only by the blasting but also because of when the blasting was done, they had to clean out all the broken bottom soil and then deposit it somewhere. And of course the easiest place to do it were the inlets and the bays where there were spawning areas and so for a long time fish couldn’t make a living out there and so a lot of their work was not done. The fish as you know, have sort of a cleaning action there in swimming – absorbing the water and taking in contaminants, deposit it down in the bottom of the river, so getting it out of the way. And so now we had to do without the fish for years.
As mentioned in the Thanksgiving Address, part of the instruction given to fish is to cleanse and purify the water. As Ernie has noted, this job has been hampered by changes made to the river. As Richard remarked above, the other instruction given to the fish is to offer themselves as food. Contamination released into the river and some residents’ concerns about taking this contamination into their own bodies have dramatically altered the feasibility for this job to be carried out as well.
Costs and benefits of fish consumption
For some, current rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity among Mohawks have led them to wonder if trading local fish for inexpensive processed foods was the healthiest decision. Currently about 25% of the community suffers from diabetes (Rourke 2009, director of “Let’s Get Healthy” program, personal communication). Of the 38 interviewees who expressed opinions about the causes of diabetes in the community, half of them (n = 19) pointed to a change in diet brought about as a result of the contamination of the environment. One man, Richard D., who works for the MCA Department of Environment, wants someone to do a study to see who currently has better health: the individuals who ignored the fish warnings and continued to eat a traditional diet or those who heeded the warnings to avoid fish and instead substituted a high carbohydrate, high fat diet, “like me, and developed obesity and blood pressure and diabetes and stuff like that. Like who’s better off? I’d like to see a study of that” (interview 45). He attributes the high rates of diabetes to the community’s collectively changed diet. “There’s a lack of healthy food here. I mean, used to be we’d get bullheads out of here for consumption. I wouldn’t touch them now.” So while the fish advisories were intended to protect Mohawk health, the shift in diet away from fish to other affordable sources of nutrition also caused health problems.
Jim, who worked for the SRMT Environment Division at the time the contamination was discovered, expressed mixed feelings for the fish advisories that strongly encouraged people to change their diets: “The problem we didn’t anticipate though was the change in the diet and the change in lifestyle we feel has contributed to the diabetes in the community and to the other illnesses in the community that has occurred since then. So that concerns me” (interview 36). In criticizing the conventional risk assessment model, Akwesasne community members Tarbell and Arquette (2000) noted that sometimes the greatest health effects are seen outside of chemical exposures and are thus not included in risk assessments. At Akwesasne, health was impacted by the environmental contamination even without the ingestion of fish: fear of exposure led to the replacement of this low-fat source of protein and other important nutrients with high-fat and high-carbohydrate sources of food. Tarbell and Arquette (2000:102) posit, “Diabetes is on the rise because more people no longer eat traditional foods and no longer participate in cultural activities that once provided healthy forms of exercise.” SUNY Albany researchers conducting environmental health studies with Mohawk adolescents also noted that while the community might have decreased their exposure to fish-borne contamination, they have lost a primary source of protein and other important nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (Fitzgerald et al. 2004). The replacement of fish with cheap foods has had the effect of “further exacerbating chronic, diet-related health problems in the community, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease” (Schell et al. 2003:961).
Despite these concerns, these researchers have expressed that reducing fish consumption has been more beneficial to health than continued fish consumption because of the risks of contaminant exposure. In a recent paper, Schell et al. (2012) assessed the benefits of consuming less local fish (lower PCB levels in the youth they tested) versus the costs (cultural loss and higher rates of diabetes and obesity). They concluded that the more holistic risk-based environmental decision-making proposed by ATFE members Arquette et al. (2002) should be better considered by regulatory agencies, and human biologists should give more focus to the non-nutritional components of many foods, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). David Carpenter (personal communication, 2008) has argued that, especially since some studies done at Akwesasne have connected PCB levels with potential health effects, the cessation of fish consumption was the best option for Mohawks, although more should have been done to help people find healthier food substitutes. Carpenter also questioned whether the touted benefits of fish consumption are enough to counterbalance the potential impacts of the contaminants (Bushkin-Bedient and Carpenter 2010). Turyk et al. (2012) argued that most of our knowledge about the nutritional benefits of fish consumption is based on marine fish, which generally have higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids than freshwater fish. They pointed to studies by Philibert et al. (2006) and Godin et al. (2003) that found no association between local fish intake and serum omega-3 fatty acids in Great Lakes fishermen. Since omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most highly cited health-promoting compounds in fish, this has led Turyk et al. (2012) to conclude that we do not have enough data to quantitatively analyze the costs and benefits of the consumption of fish from the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
At a recent community meeting (1/11/12) questions arose around whether the fish advisory had been the best course of action, considering the unintended health consequences such as obesity and diabetes that have been linked to a more modern diet. The researchers hosting the meeting acknowledged that their data demonstrated that youth born before the fish advisory (1985) had higher PCB levels than those born after, demonstrating the effectiveness of the advisory in lowering PCB body burdens (see Schell et al. 2003, 2012; Gallo et al. 2011). One participant pushed further—what about now, after the remediation work that has been done? In the discussion that followed, the general consensus was that more testing needed to be done on local fish populations to determine current contaminant levels. An Environment Division employee present at the meeting announced that there were plans in the coming year to collaborate with the NYSDEC to repeat a fish study done in 1988, and efforts were being made to convince EPA to do fish monitoring at the remedial sites. When I interviewed an Environment Division employee and asked if the fish will ever be considered safe to eat again, he replied, “I think so. I think that’ll be as clean as the fish upstream.” He remarked that the farther you go from GM, the cleaner the river gets, and the cleaner the fish get.
So, when you go down into Snye (a region of Akwesasne east of GM), we’ve taken the samples of fish and the fish are pretty clean. I think they are – we are still being cautious; we still don’t want to say yes, you can eat the fish, because we are still not sure what the proper level is that’s safe. Is it going to be 0.05 parts per million, is it going to be 0.5 parts per million you know, 0.005… you know there is still science that’s going on. So, we want to be very sure of what we’re doing before we say it’s okay. I think it’s going to happen eventually you know” (interview 15).
In order for the tribal government to be able to properly advise residents about the risks and benefits of eating local fish, more testing needs to be done, and the results conveyed in a manner that the community can understand and apply.
Risk avoidance and reduction
The case of Akwesasne is illustrative of unintended health and cultural consequences of relying on risk avoidance rather than risk reduction methods of preventing human exposure to contamination (O’Neill 2003NEJAC 2002). Risk reduction strategies look to risk-producers to prevent or eliminate environmental contamination in order to avoid human exposure. In the case of Akwesasne, risk reduction strategies would have entailed greater monitoring of General Motor’s operations to prevent decades’ worth of PCB contamination to the surrounding area. A greater enforcement of risk reduction would also have led to the immediate and complete removal of PCB-contaminated waste from the GM site, rather than a decades-long cleanup that resulted in a 12 acre landfill, and a reliance on continued fish advisories to prevent Mohawks from being exposed to contamination. Risk avoidance strategies call upon the risk-bearers to alter their practices so as to avoid the harms of exposure to contamination. Fish advisories are an example of this strategy: the onus is on the risk-bearers, in this case the fish consumers, rather than those who caused the risk.
O’Neill (2003) points out that reducing human health risks by targeting the first link in the chain that connects environmental contamination to human health—in this case removing the source of the PCB contamination—means that ecological health benefits as well. Intervening late in the chain and breaking the link at the point of human exposure, in this case by preventing fish consumption, leaves a greater amount of contamination unabated, has greater negative environmental effects, and is a form of cultural discrimination.
Risk-avoidance strategies also rely implicitly on the assumption that there are readily available substitutes for local fish and the customs that accompany their gathering (NEJAC 2002). As we have seen from the case in Akwesasne, these substitutes were not available to all residents, and there are no substitutes for the cultural activities and knowledge exchange that once happened around fishing. Fish was not just a source of protein for Mohawks, but a cultural object of importance that could not easily be factored into the assessment of mortality and morbidity risks that currently comprise health risk assessments (Donatuto et al. 2011). In order to properly calculate whether risk-reduction strategies are an acceptable solution to environmental contamination, it is necessary to look beyond the risk to a population of cancer deaths, and consider the threats to a healthy, culturally specific lifestyle as defined by the Mohawks themselves. This more complete assessment would include cultural indicators such as access to a traditional diet and the passing down of traditional knowledge (Johnson and Ranco 2011).
While fish advisories were necessary in the 1980s to protect Mohawk health when GM’s contamination was first discovered, EPA has not made any concerted attempts to ensure that advisories will only be necessary in the short term (O’Neill 2003). While fish advisories are often necessary to protect human health in the short term, there is a need to emphasize more permanent and judicious fixes to problems of contamination. The EPA’s most recent Five Year Report about the GM site states that “remedial actions have been completed in the St. Lawrence River, Raquette River, and Turtle Cove, and, when combined with the existing fish advisories, these measures address unacceptable exposure pathways in these areas” (USEPA 2010: ES1; italics mine). This report takes for granted that fish advisories are an acceptable tool for preventing human exposure to contaminants, similar to a cap on the river bottom that isolates contaminated sediment. Acceptance of the ongoing fish advisories allows GM and the EPA to avoid a more thorough and permanent cleanup.