Click image to enlarge. The province of Alberta has issued an advisory for consumption of gull and tern eggs in Athabasca River and Lake Mamawi region. Some feel that it missed the mark.
I just saw the latest food consumption advisory for residents in Fort Chipewyan. This advisory relates to tern and gull eggs. It’s completely depressing, for obvious reasons, and, for other reasons that might be less so.
These advisories reflect the findings of a study conducted by Craig Hebert, an Environment Canada scientist from southern Ontario, done with the help of some staff from Wood Buffalo National Park. In that study, tern and gull eggs harvested in Lake Athabasca and Lake Mamawi had relatively high levels of mercury. This contaminant is a heavy metal that is released into the environment through hydro development as well as the Oilsands. Craig presented his results to community members last year, much to their alarm. Actually, he was given a pretty hard time by locals because he wasn’t able to speak to any health implications of his findings.
This egg consumption advisory has just been released, about a year later. At first glance the news seems bad for local residents when it comes to possible health effects. If you are an adult male you should only eat 8-12 eggs per week. If you are a young child, you might only eat one egg every two weeks! And if you regularly (whatever that means) eat fish from these or other nearby lakes, well then you also better not eat any eggs at all. Regardless of your age.
The consumption advisory has been widely reported in the media, because it amounts to yet another indicator that things are going badly for the Peace Athabasca Delta and for residents in Fort Chip. And because both are 200 miles downstream from the Oil Sands.
To top it off, this consumption advisory was really badly thought out.
Why would I say that? At first glance, it seems to be pretty well done. Pretty pictures of eggs? Check. Plain and easy-to-read language? Check. Intuitive and useful measurements? Check. So, what is the big deal?
Had Alberta Health talked to anyone local, they quickly would have realized that these eggs are only produced and harvested for a short time each spring. And so these eggs are typically only consumed for a few weeks each year.
First off, the advisory should have been developed in close collaboration with Elders, community leaders and the Nunee Health Authority. Instead it was developed by scientists and then provided to Nunee and leadership as a done-deal.
As a result, the advisory reads like a warning developed by people who live in the South for other people who live in the South. Had Alberta Health talked to anyone local, they quickly would have realized that these eggs are only produced and harvested for a short time each spring. And so these eggs are typically only consumed for a few weeks each year.
Instead, this advisory suffers from what might be called “supermarket” thinking. It recommends that residents only eat a certain number of eggs per week, assuming that these eggs would be available indefinitely. Like chicken eggs would be in the supermarket.
Similarly, it is thought that locals can always just switch off unsafe food products. When one product becomes dangerous, they would switch to another one that is safer to consume. Kind of like the alfalfa sprouts that had health-threatening E coli bacteria and were thus removed from my local Safeway. No probs. I switched over to cucumbers, or tomatoes, or lettuce, or whatever. Or when there were similar problems with E coli in specific brands of ground beef a few years back. In that case, I had other safer brands that were made available to me by the supermarket.
These gull and tern eggs reflect a cultural tradition. A way of life that has been practiced for thousands of years. A way for parents and grandparents to teach kids about the world around them. A tradition that is being undermined by upstream development. A tradition that is getting harder and harder to practice.
Not so with these gull and tern eggs. As we have mentioned, they are only available for a very short time each spring. And only in very specific areas harvested by very specific families. And of course these eggs represent much more than food. This is a foreign concept for most city folks who know nothing about their food, other than what it costs.
These gull and tern eggs reflect a cultural tradition. A way of life that has been practiced for thousands of years. A way for parents and grandparents to teach kids about the world around them. A tradition that is being undermined by upstream development. A tradition that is getting harder and harder to practice. A tradition that is supposedly protected by treaty rights. And a tradition that is further weakened by declines in other wildlife. In this case, local fish that might also contain high levels of mercury.
And of course there are very few affordable and healthy alternatives to these country foods in Fort Chip. Here, chicken eggs cost 2-3 times what they do in the South, to say nothing of weird-tasting and expensive powdered eggs. Locals are also concerned about the pesticides and other additives in those products.
In the end, one egg that is locally harvested in traditional ways by community members is replaced by another egg, produced elsewhere by unknown people in ways that are generally seen as disrespectful by locals.
This is the real danger. That locals are increasingly scared of the traditional foods that are still the healthiest thing going. Gull and tern eggs included. Indeed, the supposed mercury danger of these eggs pales in comparison. But what’s the likelihood that Alberta Health would ever make that loss and fear the focus of a consumption advisory? Absolutely zero.
Here is a relevant video shot in Fort Chipewyan in 2013 where hundreds of seagulls were found dead along the winter road. Not even the scavengers were picking at them. The scene was discovered less than a week after a mysterious oil slick was seen stretching for miles on the Athabasca River, and eventually settled in Lake Athabasca.
Stéphane McLachlan is a professor at the University of Manitoba, and the head of the Environmental Conservation Lab on campus. He is also the producer of award winning film Seeds of Change, and wanorazi yumneze (Awakening Spirit).