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Researchers find reduced contaminants in seals

Many Nunavummiut continue to eat seal meat and the good news from Environment and Climate Change Canada is that contaminants in the animals' meat, blubber and organs have generally been on the decline over decades.

Hunters have been supplying seal samples to Environment Canada for 25 years so contamination analyses can be done. The government department relies on assistance from harvesters in Arviat, Resolute, Sachs Harbour, NWT and Nain, Labrador. Other communities, such as Sanikiluaq, pictured above, have also contributed to the program in the past. There have been occasions, such as in 2012, when mercury was present in concentrations high enough to warrant an advisory to pregnant women not to eat ringed seal livers due to fears of brain damage to human fetuses.
photo courtesy of Environment Canada

The federal government department has been studying chemicals in ringed seals for a quarter century. Old pollutants, such as PCBs, have been dropping due to regulations prohibiting them, according to Magali Houde, a Montreal-based researcher with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“But we're also screening for new (toxins). What's entering the environment up in the Arctic?” she said of the ongoing scrutiny for items such as micro-plastics, flame retardants, water repellents and non-stick finishes used in pots and pans. “Just so (people) know that we are looking into contaminants in their country foods and working with health agencies.”

Micro-plastics haven't been accumulating at significant rates in seals but are of greater concern in seabirds, she said.

Many of the contaminants drift into Nunavut through the air and oceans from southern Canada and the U.S., she said. In the Western Arctic, Asia is contributing some of the pollution.

Federal researchers rely on Northern harvesters for approximately 80 ringed seal samples per year for studies, according to Houde.

Thomas Alikaswa, chair of the Arviat Hunters and Trappers Organization, said it's important to his organization to participate in the research.

“The reason why we keep supporting those guys is some people here eat a whole lot of sea mammals, seals are one of them,” said Alikaswa. “We like to keep track of their health, (whether they're) good to eat with no mercury and all that.”

Because contaminants in seals are within acceptable levels, Alikaswa acknowledged that he encourages people to eat country foods rather than store-bought food, as much as possible.

Eating seal delivers vitamins A and D, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron and selenium (an antioxidant).

Alikaswa noted that seals have additional value because their soft and durable skins are used for making warm mitts and kamiik.

Houde stressed that ringed seal contaminants analyses wouldn't be possible without the involvement of harvesters who supply the seal samples.

“Their knowledge for this important part is the key to my project,” she said.

It's the responsibility of Environment and Climate Change Canada to go into the communities and thoroughly explain the results of the studies, said Houde. It's been a challenge to overcome the language barrier in regards to specific technical terms, particularly the names of contaminants for which there's no translation, she explained.

It's also important to provide context “so people don't get scared about numbers that sometimes don't mean anything to them,” Houde added.

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