Blending science and tradition in the Arctic

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KUUJJUAQ, Quebec - Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec, is changing.
Fast.

The existence of climate change is not debatable here. "The North is a very
different world now," said Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp., which
administers the benefits of a 1975 Inuit land claim.

"We have no winter until December, whereas we used to begin driving our
Ski-Doos in October; and the sea ice melts earlier in the spring, so polar
bears are coming inland in May instead of late June or July."

Other new challenges include airborne pollutants riding the winds from
industrial parts of the world, mining activities that may cause local
contamination and a growing population. In the face of these
transformations, the Inuit of Nunavik are using all means available -
traditional and modern - to make informed choices and protect their 14
villages, which range in size from 280 to 2,000 residents and are located
mostly along the Ungava Bay and Hudson Bay coasts.

One important tool is the Nunavik Research Centre, established in 1978 to
monitor wildlife populations and ensure optimal harvesting levels for the
traditional subsistence hunts. "The most healthy population has individuals
distributed among all age classes," explained wildlife technician Peter
May, Inuk, a lab employee since 1983.

"It's important that the Inuit have that data," added toxicologist Michael
Kwan, one of the center's four scientists. "They need it for the sake of
their own health and that of the region, and for negotiating with the
government in regard to hunting and fishing quotas. If we have our own
studies, we know the actual situation instead of having to accept the word
of other scientists."

Having scientists on the Inuit payroll was vital to Nunavik's elders, who
had noted that researchers would arrive in the region, collect data and
disappear without telling local inhabitants what they'd found. Aware that
in a rapidly changing environment the information gathered would likely be
significant, the elders advised Makivik Corp. to put cutting-edge science
and traditional knowledge to work for the people.

Nowadays, the communities convey all sorts of questions to the Nunavik
Research Centre. The concerns are expressed first to the Nunavik Regional
Board of Health and Social Services, which is responsible for public
health; it then turns them over to the research center. Under the
supervision of director Bill Doidge, a marine mammalogist, the lab's staff
devises studies, often in collaboration with Health Canada, Environment
Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The results go back to the
health board, which in turn - as the elders directed - makes
recommendations to the communities.

"Recently, we got a call from people who had found dozens of dead eider
ducks," said May, one of the lab's four technicians. "It turned out that
the birds had contracted avian cholera. We paid for people to return to the
site in canoes, burn any carcasses and clean up the area."

In another case, a village asked that water, snow and soil from around a
nearby mining site be analyzed for pollutants. "We found that the mining
company had, in fact, done a good job with its environmental monitoring,"
said Kwan.

Safety of the local food supply is a new issue. Surprisingly high pollution
levels have been discovered in the seemingly pristine circumpolar region
because volatile materials such as mercury, PCBs, brominated flame
retardants and aerosol pesticides are carried on the wind from other areas
and plummet to earth when they condense in the Arctic cold. As a result,
the Inuit worried that "country food" - the traditional fare they have
eaten for thousands of years - had become contaminated.

To see whether the concern was warranted, the research center hired Kwan in
1996 to run a toxicology lab - the eastern Arctic's first - and expand the
organization's portfolio to include food-safety studies. Kwan looks for the
presence of heavy metals. Wildlife parasitologist Manon Simard was hired in
2003 to take over ongoing research into diseases such as trichinellosis and
toxoplasmosis, which may pass from animals to humans.

"We found that levels of contaminants here are very low, though we did
recommend continued monitoring, as levels of mercury and other pollutants
are definitely rising in the Arctic," said Kwan. "We also confirmed that
country food is good for you - with high-quality protein and plenty of
vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, including omega-three fatty acids
in the marine mammals and fish. In contrast, store-bought foods may have
fewer nutritional benefits and their own contaminants, such as hormones and
pesticides. We then worked with the health board to produce educational
materials that explain this in non-technical terms."

Lining the lab's walls are examples of informational posters - on mercury-
and botulism-free ways to ferment walrus meat and more - that take the
scientists' work back to the people in English and Inuttitut.

Community members take part in the research center's projects. Kwan
explained: "If we want beluga samples, for instance, we contact local
hunting and fishing associations and send kits with labeled bags, measuring
tape, writing instruments and instructions: everything the hunters need to
collect the samples. Depending on the project, they'll be paid about $60
for measurements of an animal and a set of tissues, such as meat, blubber
and liver."

Simard has accompanied hunters to Sleeper's Island in Hudson Bay, where a
higher proportion of walruses appear to be infected with trichinellosis
than is the norm in Nunavik. Trichinellosis is caused by a worm that's
related to the one found in pork. It can be killed by cooking meat well;
however, the Inuit consider raw or fermented walrus a delicacy, and
communities that habitually hunt in this area may find that half of the
walruses they harvest are infected and can only be eaten cooked.

During the trip, Simard assessed an existing field test for trichinellosis
that the hunters hoped could be used to check the walruses themselves. If
the test proved effective, they wouldn't have to send a sample of the
animal - ordinarily the tongue - to the Nunavik Research Centre to be
analyzed.

Unfortunately, the test proved unreliable, so Simard will evaluate the
accuracy of traditional means of determining if walruses are sick
(including the presence of yellowed skin and extra-long tusks) and look at
the life cycle of the disease and the management of the hunt to see what
can be done to control the disease.

"In projects like these, the whole community is involved: the hunters,
their associations, the health board, the research center," said Simard.
"There's a lot of collaboration and talking to each other. It works, and
that's important."