Western helps unlock secrets to food security

Paul Mayne // Western News

Grade 9 Kluane First Nation youth Lenita Alatini received a hands-on lesson from Biotron lab technician Jeff Warner in testing the mercury levels of the fish from her Yukon Territory community at Western’s Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre.

First Nations traditional knowledge fused with the scientific labs at Western in an attempt to understand more about food safety and security for the Kluane First Nation.

The community of 95 people is located in the Yukon Territory, along the shores of Kluane Lake and Alaska Highway – an arduous 58-hour trek from Western. Nevertheless, Norma Kassi, Director of Indigenous Collaboration for the Arctic Institute of Community Based Research, visited the university last week, along with three Indigenous youth and Indigenous filmmaker Tookie Mercredi, who filmed the visit as part of a documentary, Nourishing Our Future.

The group’s goal was to continue a project examining potential contaminants in the lake.

“Yukon Territory is the fastest melting region in the world. With that goes a lot of our traditional foods, which are really unstable at this point in time, and our people are becoming very concerned about food security,” Kassi said. “We don’t get much salmon that come up the river – yet we’re a big lake. The country is melting fast. Glaciers are melting and they are affecting the fish in the lake, as well. They became concerned about their food security for the long term.”

In the lab of Western biologist Brian Branfireun, Canada Research Chair in Environment & Sustainability, the group tested some of the 200 fish samples the youth caught last summer from their lake. The tests were part of a larger study on mercury levels on the Kluane Lake fish, headed by University of Waterloo biology professor Heidi Swanson and master’s student Nelson Zabel.

Branfireun, director of the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre, where some of the lab work was done, determined the mercury levels of the fish were well below any level of concern – a surprise to some.

Because of the cold temperatures in the Yukon, fish grow slower than downstream. Because of that, mercury levels are usually higher because it has had time to accumulate over so many years. That is why, for example, a big blue fish tuna, that may be 70 years old, will have a lot of mercury, even though the ocean level is low, he said.

“It (Kluane) is a remote lake, glacier fed, the water is very beautiful, but even then we have no reason to believe that there wouldn’t be higher levels in the big fish,” Branfireun said.

Both visitors were relieved at the findings.

“I was extremely surprised. I do mercury testing in fish across the north – in Nunavut, the North West Territories, Alaska and the Yukon. These are the lowest levels we’ve seen in fish this big,” Swanson said.

Added Kassi, “We wanted to know that our fish is safe to eat. We are very happy, given that mercury is on the rise all across the country in the northern regions – that we can report the mercury levels are really low is wonderful. It’s a very good sign.”

Branfireun applauded the collaboration with Swanson.

“My expertise is in mercury and we have a great lab here to conduct ultra trace mercury analysis and all kinds of things,” said Branfireun, who has collaborated with Swanson in the past. “It’s sort of a natural fit. My expertise is in water, sediment and the broader environment, and her expertise is in aquatic ecosystems and fisheries. We’re interested in mercury all the way through that process.”

Kassi said having the youth involved in the process was a vital feature in the research.

“It’s very much a community project and the most important part of that was we’re training the youth. They were there setting the nets; they were there when they caught the fish; they followed the whole process; and now they are in a lab at Western and Waterloo. That is huge,” she said. “This is really good for them. They are learning the entire aquatic system and connection to the fish and they will be going home with a very different perspective.”

Branfireun said with climate change altering the landscape for the Kluane First Nation community, traditional understanding – determining where the best animals are – combined with his ability to scientifically determine if they are safe to eat or not is a great blending of both knowledge-based learnings.

“There is not contradiction there,” he said. “Having more certainty about what the future holds, and the way the environment responds to that, is a common goal.”