Returning Salmon Being Tested for Radiation from Japanese Nuclear Plant as a Precaution

Wawmeesh Hamilton
9/13/11

Two British Columbia First Nations are taking a wait-and-see approach as West Coast salmon are tested to determine if they have been contaminated with radiation resulting from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster six months ago, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reports.

The CFIA announced in June that testing will take place in August and continue through September, during the salmon run. Sockeye, coho, chum and pink are being tested, as well as albacore tuna. Six months ago, when the earthquake and tsunami damaged Japan’s nuclear reactors, the salmon were still out at sea. Now they are swimming back to spawn, making it an ideal time to test them.

The fish are taken from processing stations at various points across the B.C. fishery, CFIA spokesperson Mark Clarke said. Fish from the West Coast likely won’t be affected by the Fukushima disaster, but testing is prudent nonetheless. “We expect that these test results will be well below Health Canada’s actionable levels for radiation,” Clarke said.

The basis for the testing is the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan after the March earthquake and tsunami. Highly radioactive water (about 100,000 times the normal level) was released, contaminating nearby air and sea water.

Salmon migrations routes back to Canada's West Coast pass through the Pacific as far west as the Bering Sea, and overlap with possibly contaminated Japanese waters. The CFIA said that tests couldn't be done earlier because the salmon hadn't yet returned to B.C. waters.

Clarke would not answer repeated questions about whether Barclay Sound on Vancouver Island's West Coast was among the stations where fish are being tested. Seafood is a staple in the diets of Nuuchahnulth and Sto:lo peoples.

In March Simon Fraser University researchers announced they had found increased levels of iodine-131 (131-I) in seaweed from Eagle Bay in Barclay Sound but said the levels were not harmful to humans. Similar tests in the U.S. in May found the same.

The Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations in Nuuchahnulth have just finished fishing for Barclay Sound sockeye and chinook. Barclay Sound fish stocks shouldn’t be affected by any radiation fallout, Tseshaht fisheries biologist Andy Olson said.

“The fish would have been back in B.C. and out of the area at the time of the disaster,” Olson said, adding that although the Tseshaht haven’t been involved in any of the testing, “we look forward to the test results.”

Across the Strait of Georgia in the Fraser River the Sto:lo First Nations peoples are in the midst of their own fishing season.

Sto:lo Tribal Council fisheries adviser Ernie Crey agrees that testing should be carried out but said that it should be expanded.

“Testing should be performed over several years before authorities issue comforting statements to the public about the potential contamination of B.C. salmon by radiation from the nuclear plant in Japan,” he said.

Scientists also need to be aware that there are many species of aquatic life in the North Pacific that aboriginal people rely on for food.

“Testing needs to extend well beyond salmon to the many other species, both fish and the food sources fish rely on,” Crey said.

Porcupine caribou in the Yukon Territories are also being tested for radiation from the reactor meltdown, the Yukon Health and Social Services website noted. The Porcupine Caribou Management Board website notes that Gwich'in, Northern Tutchone, Han, Inuvialuit and Inupiat peoples depend on the caribou herd as a food source.

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley told the CBC that there is no reason to believe the herd has been contaminated but says it’s worth finding out for sure.

Test results are to be posted on the CFIA website as they become available.

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