Mercury in waters worries tribes
By Ashley Grant
Published October 15th, 2004
POLLUTION:Because they consume more fish than the average
American, tribe members are more vulnerable to poisoning.
ST. PAUL - In the controversy surrounding mercury in the
nation's waters, some American Indians in Minnesota are
speaking up, saying they're 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 northwestern Minnesota,
who says he fishes to put food on the table. "It's
not something abstract."
Shimek believes he suffered mercury poisoning several
years ago from eating fish he netted regularly from a
lake on the reservation. In 1996, he says, he thought
he had suffered a stroke; it started with tingling in
his left hand and worked its way to his right hand and
arm and eventually 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,"
Mercury can be harmful to the nervous system if consumed
in large quantities, especially by children or pregnant
A report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group analyzed
2003 data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency
and showed 44 states including Minnesota had active mercury
consumption advisories last year.
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.
Research Group officials said that's not good enough.
A competing plan by Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont would
have the government force industry to reduce emissions
by 90 percent by 2008.
"The Bush administration's mercury plan is too little,
too late," said Public Interest Research Group's
An EPA spokeswoman didn't immediately return telephone
messages seeking comment.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
listed about 1,900 lakes and streams as "impaired,"
meaning they contain harmful levels of pollutants such
as mercury or excess nutrients like nitrogen.
Servings of fish caught by family, friends or others
and not covered by an advisory should be limited to one
6-ounce portion a week, according to the Food and Drug
People who buy their freshwater fish at markets usually
aren't at risk because most of the fish is raised on farms.
It's a different story for tribal members like Shimek,
51, who fishes on his reservation for food and for tradition.
It's a treaty right and something members of his tribe
have relied on as a dietary staple for many generations.
"What good is a treaty-reserved right if it's not
safe?" he said.
Smaller fish are usually safer to eat because mercury
hasn't built up in their flesh as much as it may have
in larger, older fish. But the smaller fish sometimes
slip out of nets, leaving behind the larger catch.
"We are not really in a position to be selective,"
He thinks the federal government should work more quickly
to reduce mercury emissions.
These days, Shimek eats less fish and keeps a close eye
on his children's consumption.
"My 8-year-old daughter absolutely loves walleye,"
he said. "But I have to stand guard there and make
sure she doesn't eat too much."