Arctic Wildlife Wounded and Scarred by Pollution

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, September 18, 2000 (ENS) - A new survey of hunters and elders in Canada's far north has found troubling signs of pollution's effect on wildlife.


Polar bears are getting thinner and displaying abnormalities, according to some of the hunters surveyed. (Photo courtesy Ohio Northern University)
Abnormalities such as swollen internal organs, wounds and scars were found in caribou, seal, walruses, beluga whales, narwhals and polar bears by 31 hunters and elders in four Nunavut communities. Nunavut, Canada's newest territory located in the eastern Arctic, is inhabited largely by native Inuit people, many of whom still hunt for their food.

The Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board and the World Wildlife Fund collaborated on the survey, which was initiated two years ago following reports of sick or deformed wildlife in the Baffin Island region. The survey's findings were released in Montreal last week.

Sixteen hunters, aged 49 to 64, and 15 elders, aged from 61 to 90 from Qikirtarjuaq, Kimmirut, Hall Beach, and Arctic Bay participated in the survey. The hunters and elders have a combined hunting experience of about 800 years.

Researchers gathered the participants' traditional ecological knowledge on animal health during personal interviews, and then tried to apply scientific analysis to this information.

Hunters and elders from every community talked about abnormalities in at least one of the species they harvest regularly - caribou, seal, walrus, beluga, narwhal and polar bear.

The main abnormalities involved changes in the physical condition of animals. Many animals, particularly caribou, seals, and polar bears, were reported to be skinny. Changes to the color of the meat and fat were found in walrus, seals and polar bears. Parasites were seen in caribou, seals and fish.


A bird with a crossed bill as a result of exposure to POPs. (Photo courtesy WWF-Canada)
"One time I have hunted a seal in the summer, and everything about the seal was unhealthy," said Koalie Kooneeliusie, a hunter from Qikirtarjuaq. "Internal organs were swollen. I have seen seals with patches of skin missing. The skin looked as if it was taken out, as if cut out. The skin had holes in them."

"Perhaps one of the most interesting observations that was made of seals, walruses, and narwhals was the presence of round wounds in the skin," said the survey report.

"These were described as looking like burns or that a circular bit of skin was removed. A similar abnormality found on a walrus in Arctic Bay in March was analyzed and determined to be caused by the strain of bacteria that is responsible for the flesh eating disease."

Hunters said they had found walrus with fluid or pus between the meat and fat, odd stomach contents, and one with its gall bladder reversed and draining into the stomach. They had seen skinny bearded seals, seals with bad livers, a seal with pus filled white spots on its liver, seals with kidney stones and with fur missing, and some seals with large heads.

Almost half of the survey's participants said they see increasing abnormalities. Many believe modern technology and contaminants are having an adverse effect on animals. Others pointed to climate change, ozone depletion, and overpopulation as possible causes of the problems.

Canada's far north is particularly vulnerable to semi-volatile toxic chemicals commonly known as POPs, short for persistent organic pollutants. After their release into the environment, POPs such as the pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) travel in multiple cycles of evaporation, transported by air and condensation.

Called the grasshopper effect, this process allows POPs to quickly travel great distances. In the cold climate of the Canadian Arctic, low evaporation rates trap these chemicals, allowing them to enter the food chain.


Inuit mother and children may have higher than normal blood levels of persistent organic chemicals. (Photo courtesy the North-West Company)
Scientific evidence shows levels of PCBs in the blood of some Inuit women are higher than Health Canada guidelines, and levels of certain POPs in breast milk have been found up to nine times higher than in women who live in southern Canada. Naturally, animals lower on the food chain are affected.

David Kooneeliusie, a hunter from Qikiqtarjuaq, said in the survey report that he hears more hunters talking about abnormalities in wildlife.

"I have heard of these abnormalities in the past. I think these marine mammals are more affected today than in the past as I hear more hunters talking about them. I think it is the deterioration of our environment," said Kooneeliusie.

Those who hunt polar bear said tranquilizing and tagging bears is harming the bears.

"The ones that have been tranquilized don't taste good, they are skinny, they have become sick and they're not scared at all," said Isaac Shooyook from Arctic Bay. "I have definitely noticed a change, not all of them, but the ones with the tags are very skinny now. We eat the meat and it doesn't taste good any more. I didn't make that up, I am telling you the way it is."

The survey report urges more monitoring because the Inuit people of Canada's far north consume these animals daily.

David Issigaituq from Hall Beach, a participant in the survey, raised the need for further study.

"These types of conditions and abnormalities should be studied and researched, so that we will know what the cause is and how they get in this condition," Issigaituq said.


Incinerator in Chicago, Illinois emits dioxins and furans, byproducts of waste burning. (Photo courtesy Lake Michigan Federation)
The survey report recommended more education about abnormalities and the various species affected. It also suggested developing a system that can tell where animals found with abnormalities have been spotted, and in what quantity.

Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board executive director Joanasie Akumalik plans to recommend additional surveys in other communities at the board's general assembly later this year.

Additional studies could include the dissection of affected animals, but will depend on additional funding.

Published in cooperation with Nunatsiaq News