Are local fish safe to consume? Research on contaminants in subsistence fish to impact Indigenous communities

Press Release

Wahnapitae First Nation member and Laurentian graduate student, Taylor Nicholls, pursues scholarship in aquaculture

Fishing is enjoyed by people from across the globe. It is an exciting sport that offers the opportunity to enjoy nature, relieve stress and spend quality time with friends and family. But are the fish we catch safe to consume? An aquaculture study about contaminants in subsistence fish sets the goal to address this question and specifically, help inform Indigenous communities.

This fall, Wahnapitae First Nation member Taylor Nicholls began the pursuit of her Master’s in Science in Biology at Laurentian University. She is a recent recipient of the Kurt Grinnell Aquaculture Scholarship Foundation’s (KGASF) first-ever aquaculture scholarship. Established to honour the legacy of the late Kurt Grinell, a Native American leader from the Jamestown S. Klallam Tribe in Washington State, who saw aquaculture as a solution to Tribal food security, the KGASF provides financial assistance to Tribal and First Nations students who wish to pursue careers in aquaculture and natural resources.

When Nicholls graduated from Sudbury’s Lockerby Composite School in 2016, she had an interest in marine biology. This interest turned into a passion when she attended Dalhousie University to earn her Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology and Chemistry (2021).

Newly equipped with her undergraduate degree, Nicholls’ original intention wasn’t to immediately pursue graduate studies. However, when a research project funded through the First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program involving Laurentian University, the University of Waterloo, the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and her community of Wahnapitae First Nation came to her attention, she couldn’t help but want to be involved. “This funded study, which my thesis is a part of, is an analysis of fish in our territory which can create a baseline for future projects. I love the fact that this research is about our Indigenous culture as well as marine studies. I want to use my degree and the research I conduct as a student to help advance my community,” said Nicholls.

The working-title of Nicholls thesis is Chemical Ecology of Contaminants in Subsistence Fish from the Traditional Territory of an Indigenous Community in Canada.

Chemical ecology is the study of chemically-mediated interactions between living organisms.

“Essentially, the chemical ecology we seek to measure is that of fish located in two lakes near Wahnapitae First Nation: Kukagami lake and Lake Wanapitei,” Nicholls explains. “Many First Nations peoples rely on subsistence fishing, including peoples from reserves across Greater Sudbury. We need to better understand the safety of eating fish caught in communities close to home.”

Researchers will measure elements like mercury and selenium in fish samples, and will also study muscle, liver and small intestine in fish to help draw conclusions.

“It’s really amazing to have the opportunity to study contaminant levels in each of these fish tissues,” said Nicholls. “We hope to be able to draw comparative conclusions. Traditionally, Indigenous peoples would eat all three of these tissues. Not from each fish, but of specific species like pike and whitefish. Whitefish, for example, Indigenous peoples would eat the muscle, liver and small intestine.” In some Indigenous cultures, spiritual and symbolic meaning is differently associated with various parts of fish, and are assumed to have different nutritional value.

For Nicholls, community-based research is essential, and she is proud to be a part of a study that has potential to expand to other regions and Indigenous communities. “This study feels like a big responsibility, but it’s exciting and I’ve had incredible support from all involved so far, including my professors.”

Supervising Nicholls’ research includes Dr. John Gunn, Director of Laurentian’s Vale Living with Lakes Centre and Canada Research Chair Tier 1 for Stressed Aquatic Systems, and Dr. Gretchen Lescord, who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and is an Adjunct Professor at the Vale Living with Lakes Centre. Collaborators on this project include Dr. Brian Laird (University of Waterloo) and Sara Lehman (Wahnapitae First Nation).

“Wahnapitae First Nation is a small Ojibwe community in Sudbury’s mining basin where Taylor’s passion for restoring balance to our lakes and waterways and her commitment to higher education has allowed her to flourish and forge a path for our younger members to take note of. Her current work will lay an important foundation for future studies about the things that impact our community’s health and future. She is a wonderful example of a young member of Wahnapitae First nation doing great work within her home community,” said Sara Lehman, Environmental Coordinator, Wahnapitae First Nation.

“This collaborative project has many important implications – for fisheries and environmental science, for example – but the most important things I have personally learned so far are how we can better partner with an Indigenous Community to co-create research in a meaningful way. Taylor has helped me with that for Wahnapitae First Nation. And she has shown so much passion for her project already! I’m excited to see where her work takes us and all the new things we’ll learn along the way,” added Dr. Gretchen Lescord.

All collaborators involved in this project acknowledge that the Greater City of Sudbury is located on the traditional lands of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek that includes the traditional lands of the Wahnapitae First Nation.

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