One Alaska Native's Perspective on Marine Contamination


Larry Merculieff

I am a descendant of a people, the Aleuts, who have survived and thrived in the Bering Sea for thousands of years. Many other coastal indigenous cultures -- tens of thousands of people -- are dependent on the Bering Sea. Our way of life and our cultures are being threatened on an unprecedented scale with the human-caused deterioration of the health of the Bering Sea ecosystem. The deterioration is the result of wanton waste of millions of pounds of fish thrown overboard by fishing vessels, discharge of huge levels of contaminants by land and by sea over decades, and the use of the Bering Sea as a convenient dumping ground for non-biodegradable garbage.

Researchers from the east coast once came to my home in the Pribilof Islands to determine if heavy metal contaminants are in our bodies. They discovered that not only did we have mercury in our bodies, but we had the highest concentrations of mercury ever found in human hair in North America. The probable source of the mercury contamination? The liver of Northern fur seals. Eighty percent of the world's population of Northern fur seals breed in the Pribilof Islands. Apparently, the mercury bioaccumulates in the internal organs of marine mammals which we depend on for food. The researchers never returned to my home, nor has there ever been follow-up to assess the long term effects of this contamination in humans. There has been no research to determine the original sources of the contamination in the food chain. We do know that extensive mercury contamination results in the "Mad as a Hatter" syndrome. In the old days, hatters worked with mercury which caused them to go "mad". The symptoms of contamination include tremors of the hands and other adverse effects on the central nervous system.

In 1992, northern fur seal pup mortality increased by 20%, compared to the average mortality of seal pups for the previous decade. The government researchers determined that the cause of the mortality increase was what they call "white muscle disease" reaching the pups perhaps through mother's milk. This was the first time this disease appeared in a marine mammal. Historically, only one mammal -- cattle -- was known to have the disease.

Scientists are unable to determine if the bioaccumulation of heavy metals is caused naturally in marine mammals through the food chain since little baseline data exists. There is, however, no question that the diets of marine mammals and birds have changed over the past 50 years, due to climate change and fishing activities. Is it possible that the diet shifts of marine mammals over the decades have changed the levels of bio-concentrated heavy metals so that now the levels are adverse to the health of animals and humans?

Anecdotally, we hear about massive contaminant discharges into the Bering Sea from Russia. We know that the U.S. military dumped mustard gas and similar lethal contaminants into the Bering Sea during World War II. The huge Bering Sea fishing fleets discharge tons of sewage and detergents into the sea daily with unknown consequences. Radioactive contamination was found in the teeth of Steller sea lions in the 1960s.

Not only do we not know the long term consequences of such contamination, but no one is looking at the cumulative effects of such contamination on the maine system and the food chain in the Bering Sea. How many heavy metals and other contaminants are bioaccumulating in human mothers' milk? Sea Lion populations in the Bering and North Pacific are down 85% since the mid-1970s. Northern fur seal populations are down 60% Several seabird populations are down 50%-80%. What role do maine contaminants play in these declines? No one knows and few are paying attention.

In thinking about what we are doing to our world's oceans, I contemplate the wisdom of the ancients. They us that nothing can be manifest outside us that is not first manifest within us." We cannot create something in the "outer world" without first creating it within each of us. We are trashing our physical world because we are trashing our "inner world." Long term change cannot take place until we deal with our trashing within and transform our inner world into one of peace, tranquility, and balance. The elders say that the only thing that transform darkness into light is love. As Native American wisdom keepers say, the first step to true healing within begins with loving what we may hate inside ourselves, born of fear. We must transform our fears by accepting our fears as our teachers on our earthwalk. When we accept our fears as teachers, we make fears our friends. Until this happens, we must depend on the few who step forward with stopgap measures that buy us more time until we awaken from our sleep and disconnection with the Sacred in all Creation.

For Alaska Natives, we must assume responsibility for our own healing. The healing is necessary before we can restore our role as the original stewards who will take an active role in advocating for the Bering Sea. All others must do the same in their areas of Mother Earth.

Larry Merculieff is the Coordinator of Alaska's Bering Sea Coalition.

[Reprinted with permission from Greenpeace - Call to Action, vol. 3, No. 1 (1966)]