From: Ashley H. Grant, Associated Press
Published October 19, 2004 12:00 AM

American Indians Who Fish for Their Food Are Worried About Mercury in the Nation's Waters

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — American Indians are adding their voices to the controversy over mercury in the nation's waters, saying they are among the biggest consumers of fish and therefore more at risk from contamination.


"It is a real issue," said Bob Shimek, a member of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, who says he fishes to put food on the table. "It's not something abstract."


A recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which analyzed 2003 data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency, showed that 44 states including Minnesota had active mercury consumption advisories last year.


Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency listed about 1,900 lakes and streams as "impaired," meaning they contain harmful levels of pollutants like mercury or excess nutrients like nitrogen.


People who buy their freshwater fish at markets usually aren't at risk because most of it is raised on farms.


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It's a different story for tribal members like Shimek, 51, who fish on their reservation. The practice is a treaty right and something members of his tribe have relied on as a dietary staple for generations.


"What good is a treaty-reserved right if it's not safe?" said Shimek, who works for an Indian environmental group on a mercury education project.


Shimek believes he suffered mercury poisoning in 1996 from eating fish he netted regularly from a lake on the reservation. He said he initially believed he had suffered a stroke when tingling in his left hand spread and affected his feet and speech.


Though Shimek never saw a doctor for his symptoms — he said he wasn't able to take time off from work — he's sure of the cause.


"Once I ran out of (fish), over a period of quite a number of weeks, the symptoms began to diminish," said Shimek.


Mercury can be harmful to the nervous system if consumed in large quantities, especially by children or pregnant women.


The EPA recently announced a mercury-reduction plan that envisions a 70 percent cut in mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 2018, from the current 48 tons a year to 15 tons.


Source: Associated Press


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