Plastic found inside Arctic char has Nunavut hunters fearing local food sources

Hunters in Nunavut say they have found plastic in the bellies of Arctic char, a fish that is an integral part of Inuit culture, often eaten raw, frozen or boiled.

Bobby Greenley, president of the Ekaluktutiak Hunters and Trappers Organization in Cambridge Bay, said the problem started to crop up four or five years ago.

“We find it in the stomachs of the fish we’re doing studies on,” he said. “We’re starting to get more whales in our area, they might suck [plastic] also in their stomachs.”

Greenley said it was bad for animals, but also bad for people’s safety.

“It can get sucked into people’s speedboat [boat] motors and damage them. Next thing you know, you’re saving people who’s broken down in the middle of the ocean.”

Billy Merkosak, a hunter from Pond Inlet, also saw plastic inside the fish. It’s a “very frightening” discovery that leaves him wondering about the health of his community.

Plastic comes from near and far

Scientists say it’s hard to know the amount of plastic pollution in the Arctic, but a recent study published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment examines where it came from and what can be done about it.

Jennifer Provencher, a scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada and one of the report’s authors, says the plastic comes from a mix of local and international sources – sometimes even carried north by migrating animals.

Jennifer Provencher works on a cliff near Digges Sound, Quebec, as part of a survey to count seabirds and plastic litter. (Submitted by Jennifer Provencher)

Provencher says consumer plastic (like food wrappers) and industrial plastic (like the nurdles or pellets used to make plastic items) have been found inside migratory birds in the Arctic.

β€œIn Nunavut, there are no real major shipping lanes … there are no major plastic factories. So we know that at least some of the plastics in the Arctic are in some way subject to a long-distance transport,” she said.

The study indicates that the articles in the Arctic were recognized as coming from Russian and Scandinavian trawlers as well as from the United Kingdom, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and the United States.

But it also comes from local sources, like landfills.

“There are a lot of reports of plastic bags and things coming out of these landfills,” Provencher said, citing the Iqaluit landfill as an example of a cause for concern.

Kevin Kalluak, president of the Arviat Hunters and Trappers Organization, says leaving drink containers along popular trails and hunting grounds near Arviat seems to be “become a habit”.

The organization regularly reminds people to bring their trash back to town, he said.

Wide variety of solutions required

Provencher says that although Arctic animals don’t seem to consume large amounts of plastic, it can cause problems when ingested. Her research also focuses on contaminants attached to plastic that “leak into the environment” and disrupt animal hormones.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) says some contaminant levels in the Arctic are falling, but plastic pollution – and the contaminants they carry with them – poses a “additional new threat.”

“It’s just one more thing that shouldn’t be in the Arctic, that is, in the Arctic,” said Eva Kruemmel, ICC adviser on contaminants.

A biologist points out a tiny fake plastic sheet hidden in her Lake Ontario sediment sample July 15, 2015. Experts say concerns about plastics in water are growing in the Arctic. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

The United Nations has approved an agreement to create the first-ever global treaty on plastic pollution in early March, and Kruemmel said the ICC wants to see these negotiations result in a “strong and binding instrument” that regulates plastic from the beginning to the end of its life cycle.

Merkosak said it was difficult to find a local solution to a global problem. But one change he would like to see β€” in Pond Inlet and across the territory β€” is a ban on plastic packaging in grocery stores.

“It’s piling up more and more every year and we’re seeing more plastic stuff on the shelves, these days, and that’s not helping at all,” he said.

Provencher said there are also waste management policies that can help, but an entire “toolbox” of solutions is needed because plastic pollution has many sources and ends up in many different places.

Climate change is exacerbating the problem

The study also indicates that climate change threatens to worsen plastic pollution in the Arctic, as melting sea ice opens up new shipping lanes.

Ms Provencher said research in the south shows plastic pollution is a big problem and the goal of her work is to inform policy and ensure it doesn’t reach that level in the world. Arctic too.