The chief of a northern First Nation community delivered 90 kilograms of fish to the B.C. Legislature on Monday. He found no takers for his gift after he revealed that the bull trout, harvested from a river where his family has fished for decades, are contaminated with mercury.
"We can't eat it, so I'm offering it back," said West Moberly Chief Roland Willson, who also released a study commissioned by his First Nation showing dangerously high levels of mercury in this important food fish for his community.
Chief Willson held up a small candy – a foil-wrapped Hershey's Kiss – to demonstrate the amount of the fish a woman of child-bearing age could safely consume based on the levels of mercury found in trout from the Crooked River.
Residents around the Williston Reservoir, which was created by the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, have long been warned to limit consumption of fish from the reservoir due to elevated levels of methylmercury – the form of mercury that is of greatest concern to human health.
The mercury, released from decaying matter in the plants and trees that were flooded during the dam construction, has led the province to issue fish consumption warnings for bull trout and dolly varden taken from the reservoir.
But Chief Willson said his community believed that concern was limited to the reservoir, not 60 kilometres upstream on the Crooked River, where these trout were taken. "We thought we were safe, being that far away."
The question came up while his family was sitting around the fire at their fish camp three years ago: Since the tributaries are connected, is it possible these fish are also contaminated? The band commissioned a study of fish that were frozen after the camp. The results were shocking to the community, Chief Willson said. His family will not return to the fish camp.
The West Moberly and other members of the Treaty 8 Tribal Association are seeking to block construction of the Site C dam, which would be the third dam on the Peace River. They say they are still suffering from the losses caused by the previous dams, and should not be asked to give up still more.
"There is an issue – a big one – and it affects everyone that goes up there," Chief Willson said. "It's a big cesspool."
Two large coolers he dragged onto the lawn of the legislature were packed with fish that had been cleaned, frozen and labelled with the names of the members of the community with whom they were intended. Families would gather and fish together, feast and then bring catch home to store and share. "When we have our fish camp, we used to eat three or four fish on the weekend each. We'd take it home, can it, dry it, freeze it," he said.
Reaching into one of the boxes, he pulled out a hefty trout, caught by a cousin. This would have been a prize catch, he said, but the community is afraid to eat it.
The band hired a consulting firm to analyze the fish, which were harvested in the summer of 2012.
Monday's report by ERM Consultants Canada Ltd. says more detailed study is needed, but it concludes the risk is clear enough, particularly to pregnant women and children, to create "the urgent need to communicate these results to individuals who would be considered to have high fish consumption rates and could be at risk of adverse effects due to mercury."
Energy Minister Bill Bennett, who is responsible for BC Hydro, later told reporters he will ask government scientists to investigate the mercury levels. "We will have to work with Chief Willson. … He's brought something important to us and we have to figure out what is going on."
However, Mr. Bennett said the Site C dam will go ahead, promising the government will ensure mercury monitoring.
That promise was of little comfort to Chief Willson, who had to secure a hazardous waste permit to dispose of his fish at the regional landfill.
The West Moberly First Nations released a report, conducted by ERM Consultants Canada Ltd., which found unsafe levels of mercury in bull trout in the Crooked River, upstream from the W.A.C. Bennett dam.