Suzanne’s Blog: Mercury Levels in Yukon Fish – Do I Need to Worry?

A burbot liver is 6 times the size of other fish, and provides all the Vitamin D Suzanne and family need. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Burbot liver has been providing me with Vitamin D during the long Yukon winter.

I know that fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially predatory fish.  So I wondered, since I am consuming a fair amount of burbot liver this winter, do I need to worry about mercury levels and other contaminants such as PCB’s and DDT?

To my surprise I learned that, in fish, mercury accumulates in the muscle in levels much higher than in the liver.  This is the exact opposite of terrestrial animals such as caribou where mercury levels are higher in the liver compared to the meat.

Mercury levels in fish vary depending on the location but, in general, predatory fish (lake trout, burbot) have higher levels of contaminants than non-predatory fish (whitefish, grayling, salmon) and larger (older) fish have lower levels of contaminants than smaller (younger) fish.

According the limited burbot data we have available in the Yukon, the mercury levels in burbot muscle are five times higher than in the burbot liver.  However burbot muscle has the highest mercury levels of all the freshwater fish we catch in these parts. Chum salmon has the lowest mercury levels (less than a tenth that of burbot).

Based on Health Canada’s tolerable daily mercury limit is 0.47 ug/kg/day (for adult men and adult women who are not of child bearing age), my daily limit of burbot would be maxed out at 45 grams (1.5 oz) per day!  And my daily limit of burbot liver would be a whopping 225 grams (8 oz) per day.

So my Vitamin D needs of 10 grams of burbot liver per day are no big deal.

But a daily limit of 45 grams of burbot muscle is a really small portion!  Of course, I am not eating burbot every day, so it still averages out ok – but it was a good reminder to limit my consumption of burbot.

So my take home message:  Burbot liver is a great source of local Vitamin D.  By consuming sautéed burbot liver one can get enough Vitamin D without too much mercury.   Burbot flesh should be considered a winter treat and if one is going to eat a lot of local fish, grayling and salmon would be better choices.

Want the stats?

Here are the statistics from fish in Old Crow from a study by Yukon Research Scientist, Mary Gamberg

Mercury per gram of fresh fish:

  • Burbot : 0.62 ug/g
  • Pike: 0.17 ug/g
  • Burbot liver:  0.124 ug/g
  • Grayling: 0.06 ug/g
  • Chum Salmon: 0.04 ug/g

(Based on a sample size of 14 burbot, 11 pike and 12 chum salmon from Old Crow and grayling from other Yukon locations.)

For adults, the tolerable daily mercury limit is  0.47 ug/kg/day (Health Canada)  (less for women of child bearing age)

This translates to a tolerable daily limit in grams of fish for an adult woman of my size:

  • Burbot : 45 g  (1.5 oz)
  • Pike: 164 g
  • Burbot liver: 225 g
  • Grayling: 466 g
  • Chum Salmon: 700 g

As mercury levels differ from one water system to another, I was curious as to what the levels would be in the burbot living in the Yukon River at Dawson City.  I sent in one 4 pound, 11 year old burbot for testing and levels came back as 0.23 ug/g mercury in the muscle and 0.04 ug/g in the liver. The mercury levels from the Old Crow burbot are 2.5 times higher than the levels in the one fish tested from the Yukon River.  One sample only, but it suggests that the mercury levels in the Yukon River near Dawson are less than the levels around Old Crow.

For PCB’s and DDT, the amount found in 10 grams of burbot liver from the Old Crow study was quite low, one tenth of the tolerable daily intake for PCB’s and one twentieth for DDT.

 

 

 

 

Suzanne’s Blog: Burbot in Exchange for Sunshine

Burbot is a remarkable fish well-suited to the Northern climate. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Living in the far North, I usually take Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, during the winter months (1000 IU/day).  This year I wanted to see if a local diet alone would keep my Vitamin D levels stable.  Not unexpectedly, my levels dropped below normal as the days became shorter.

But, thanks to local Dawsonite and ice fisher, Jim Leary, I was introduced to burbot and it saved the day!

Jim Leary ice fishing for burbot on the Yukon River. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Burbot is an amazing fish.  It is a freshwater, carnivorous, bottom feeder that thrives at the coldest times of the year under the ice of the Yukon River.  In fact, it has chosen January as its favourite spawning month.  Burbot live to be decades old.  They have no scales and some folks find them a bit ugly and eel like.  I think they have beautiful eyes.  A survivor if ever I saw one.  Which leaves me with some ambiguity about catching them.  But their flesh is a thick and delicious white fish and their livers are especially nutritious.

A burbot liver is six times the size of most other fish, and provides the Vitamin D that Suzanne and family need. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Burbot liver is huge – six times larger than the livers of other freshwater fish of the same size, and comprising about 10% of their body weight!  And their liver is packed with Vitamin D and Vitamin A, in fact 4 times the potency of the Vitamin D and A found in cod liver.

Turns out that a mere 10 grams of burbot liver per day would supply me with the equivalent of 1000 IU of Vitamin D.  Chopped into chunks and sautéed in butter, burbot liver tastes similar to scallops.  So consuming 150 grams of burbot liver every couple of weeks was no hardship on the palate.

And it worked!  Thanks to the burbot, my Vitamin D levels returned to normal.

Fish tend to accumulate toxins from our water systems, especially carnivorous bottom feeding fish.  I will share my findings on mercury levels in burbot and some other Yukon fish in the next blog.

If you’ve ever wondered about the nutrients in wild meat and fish harvested from the land, check out this comprehensive table of data compiled by Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at the University of McGill:

Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America

Gerald’s Blog: Ode to a True Survivalist

If only humans were part burbot.  With our current medical knowledge, we might live forever if we were fortunate enough to have appropriate additions of burbot DNA.  And I have little doubt that burbot DNA infusions would be a sure-fire way of toughening up the human species.  One would, of course, have to exercise due precaution in the dosing:  too much infusing might not only disqualify one from the category of “human,” but could also contribute to deleterious effects such as growing barbels where once there were beards, or preferring to mate in the darkest, muddiest, coldest confines.  Hmm, come to think of it, based on some visible human behaviour and phenotypes, perhaps there have already been some surreptitious burbot-to-human genetic transplantations …

You see, burbot do not like to die.  Obviously, they are tough, thriving in the coldest of silty waters, enduring months of minimal food, living under ice in the darkest of conditions, only then to survive the relentless grinding of house-sized ice floes and spring floods, protected only by a slimy skin and a solitary barbel.  Clearly, the burbot is the quintessential survivalist.

You can bonk a burbot with a wooden mallet till its eyes bulge.  You can dislocate its neck and break its back.  You can stick a knife into its heart.  Then, hours later, there might still be a twitch of the tail.  Or, a slow contraction of the excised heart.  I have even felt the contraction of a fresh fillet in my hands, minutes after its removal from the skeleton.

As a child in Newfoundland, my mother would pay the boys 10 cents per eel. They caught them under our wharf and would deliver her a bucket of slithering, reptilian-like creatures, much to Mom’s delight.  It was a win-win arrangement:  the money was well appreciated by those kids in rural Newfoundland in the 60’s where fishing was one of the main forms of recreation for youth, and mom, although she liked to eat eel, certainly did not like swimming with the teeming hoards that seemed to reside under our wharf!

I have emotionless memories of mom dumping the eels in a sink-full of water, grabbing one at a time, chopping off their heads, cutting them into inch-long segments, and squeezing out the offal.  She would matter-of-factly place the offal and gasping-mouthed heads back in the bucket so they could later be fed to the remaining eels under the wharf.  A reward for their troubles, I suppose.  Perhaps a deposit, expecting growth with interest.

She would then wash the segments more thoroughly and toss them into the hot buttered frying pan.  During the entire operation, the eel pieces would be squirming.  They would be wriggling in the sink, flailing on the chopping board, twisting in her hands and twitching in the pan.  And through all this my mom might be dispassionately talking about the weather or asking us questions about school.  Any exclamation or indication of alarm from us was met with the same pragmatic response, “My mother used to always say that eels don’t die till after sundown.”

And that was that.  She grew up on a farm.

She was equally dispassionate about boiling live lobsters.  We ate a lot of lobster, since at that time in rural Newfoundland there was minimal commercial market for lobster and much of it was used for garden fertilizer and bait for marketable fish.  My mom seemed to have endless seasonal access to lobster.  As they were plopped head-first into the pot of boiling water, lid held tight against the thrashing tail, the usual stoic utterances could be heard as we waited for the silence.  “Reflexes.” “Nerves.”  “Death throes.”   My dad, on the other hand, was more skeptical about the humanity of this, preferring to err on the side of caution by bonking each lobster behind the eyes immediately before pot insertion.   Later, he developed the technique of “hypnotizing” the lobsters by balancing them on their heads and stroking their backs until they found their equilibrium.  On lobster night, one would have to tread carefully in our kitchen because at any one time there might be a half-dozen lobsters on the floor, all asleep on their heads, tails arched backwards, oblivious to what was awaiting them.

So, the fundamental question is whether or not this can somehow be translated into a debate about the definition of life, consciousness, pain perception and morality.  Or is it just impossible to extrapolate our sensibilities to other animals?  Obviously, it sits best with all of us to assume that pain perception and the definition of life is somehow inferior in those species that we eat.  It is our way of remaining carnivorous.  It helps with our relentless expansionistic existence, where the needs of any other species are deemed less important. Truth be dammed.

How can it be that humans are so fragile when compared to many other species?  And even more puzzling is our lack of humility in the midst of this knowledge.  For instance, a quick internet search suggests that the “zombie bug” or tree weta, is capable of surviving after being completely frozen; the lung fish can recover after months without air or moisture; the decapitated head of a snake will still strike at prey; the frog can continue to hop without its head; the headless male fruit fly is an effective courter (apparently because he is easily outwitted by the female!).

We have much to learn and there is much to marvel at.  The question is whether we choose to continue on the path of convenience or whether we embrace the uniqueness of living organisms, learning as much as we can along the way.  In the meantime, I’ll still eat burbot.  I admire the resilience of their reptilian brain and I am increasingly humbled in its presence.  And maybe, if I eat enough, some of that burbot fortitude might just rub off!

 

Gerard’s Blog: The Reason for Freezin’

Gerard's Blog: The Reason for Freezin'

“Enny meeny minny chum,
Catch a burbot with my thumb,
If I holler, let me run,
Back to home where fishing’s done!”

Today was a re-baiting day at the burbot holes.  Being relatively “warm” at 15 below, I felt that I could easily change the bait on site.  So, off I went with my bag of freezer-burned chum slices.

Shortly after arrival, the slight breeze was notable on the wet, exposed fingers.  Nevertheless, I persevered through the several hooks that required removal of the old bait and reapplication of the new.

It wasn’t till my thawing fingers were back home that I noticed the multiple red dots on the tips of my thumbs and index fingers.  A gentle squeeze revealed the tell-tale ooze of blood from each dot and alas, the mystery was solved!

Apart from the obvious benefit of catching burbot, this “dietary program” (which Suzanne now simply refers to as a “shopping choice”), has reminded me of the origin of the medical use of the word “freezing.”  For generations, cold has been effectively utilized in the medical arena for the purpose of diminishing pain.  The analgesic effect of a mouth-full of ice chips was well known to the earliest dental surgeons.  Similarly, many a limb was amputated under the chilling bite of a cold pack, when there was an absence of either whiskey to be drunk or poppy leaves to be chewed.

I’m feeling quite thrilled by the realization of the absolute analgesia I experienced  with my frozen fingers.  The next time my hands get that cold, I will glance at the filleting knife and then give serious attention to that cyst on my knuckle, thinking, “could this be the right time?”

Chum Succeeds King as Ruler of the River

Local fisherman and conservationist Sebastian Jones with a Chum salmon. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

A Dawson fall tradition — and food staple — continues as the annual Chum salmon run is in full swing in the Yukon River. Out on the river, several commercial fisherman are catching Chum to help fill the freezers of Dawsonites.

There was a time when Chum salmon used to be known as ‘dog fish.’ This was when the King salmon (also known as Chinook salmon)  were running in such great numbers that Chum was reserved for dog food.  This is no longer the case. The King salmon population has declined significantly and  eight years ago a moratorium on fishing of species was put into place, and there has been no commercial King salmon fishing in Dawson since then.

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who have traditional rights to the harvest, also voluntarily stopped subsistence fishing for King salmon in 2014 for a seven-year period,  in hopes that by then the King salmon population will have revitalized.

Dawsonites keep hope of a renewed King Salmon run someday.  In the meantime,  chum has become a staple in a local Dawson diet.  Suzanne especially enjoys it marinated in birch syrup and smoked or poached in the oven with onions and rhubarb juice.

Gerard’s Blog: I’se the B’y That Catches the Fish


I grew up in Newfoundland.  I ate fish every day.  When we had free time, we fished.  Alternatively, we would collect mussels or clams, or if we wanted something different to do, we would hike into the hills to go fishing for trout.  As young men, when we went camping, it was up the river to fish for salmon.

The beginning of summer vacation was always hallmarked by parties at Caplin Gulch, while we fished for … caplin.  If the caplin was in abundance (as it always was), we would use the surplus in our vegetable gardens as fertilizer.  Or we would add seaweed to the soil, which was a “byproduct” of our fishing.

Breakfast was most frequently fish. My mother loved to fish and we lived on the banks of a salmon river.  Throughout the summers she would often fish early in the morning, so we could awaken to the smell of frying trout.  Failing that, she would fry up cod’s heads. Or salmon.  Sometimes, there would be “fisherman’s bruise,” made from the leftovers of the previous evenings supper.  Since we ate fish every day, it always gave us a moment for reflection when others would specifically mention how they were having fish because it was Good Friday.  For us, every day was Good Friday.

So you can imagine the shock when I came to the realization that I don’t like to fish.  I’ve been thinking the thought for a few years now.  I’ve been reminiscing about my exploits of the past and I’ve been wondering whether it was the fish I was seeking, or just the food, or perhaps the camaraderie of my buddies.  Or was it just the expectation, the alternative of being a “non-fisherman” being too sacrilegious to even contemplate?

I’ve been trying out the words lately, saying things like, “I only like fishing when there are fish.”  In other words, I’ve been fishing for responses, testing the waters before coming out of the closet with the admission that I don’t like to fish.  So, that’s it then.  I don’t like to fish.  Can’t help it.  Ancestors, don’t roll in your graves, or haunt me tonight (or for all eternity for that matter!).

Because of this diet thing, there has been a certain amount of pressure for me to fish, since fish is local.  Tried a couple of times for whitefish.  None.  Tried for grayling, but could not disguise the fact that mostly I just want to drive the boat.  It’s hard to catch fish if the line doesn’t touch the water…

But last night, last night I caught two grayling!   And we fried them up and ate them and they were delicious and they brought back a flood of fond memories and now I think I’ve got grayling figured out and so am thinking about fishing, looking forward to it actually.  So now I am confused, my conviction is being tested.  Could I, in fact, enjoy fishing?

A Very Special Gift to Start Suzanne’s Journey

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Angie Joseph-Rear (right) presents Suzanne with fish eggs from the first King Salmon harvested by that First Nation in several years. Photo by Tess Crocker

Suzanne has been given a very special gift to start her journey of a year of eating local — fish eggs from the first King Salmon harvested by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in many years.  Mähsi cho to Angie Joseph-Rear and all the elders, youth and adults involved in First Fish Culture Camp at Moosehide Village.

First Fish Culture Camp is an opportunity to pass on knowledge to youth regarding the fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon.  It takes place over 5 days at Moosehide Village.  Chum salmon has generally been the salmon processed at First Fish.  With the decline of the King Salmon population and the moratorium on commercial King Salmon Fishing in the Yukon, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in voluntarily stopped harvesting King Salmon for subsistence fishing approximately 5 years ago in order to aid in the re-growth of the King Salmon population in the Yukon River.  And there is evidence that the King Salmon population is increasing.

the-first-King-Salmon-1-
First-king-Salmon-3
First-King-Salmon-4

First Fish Culture Camp teaches youth traditional methods for fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.

On Tuesday, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elders Committee made the decision to allow a 48-hour window of King Salmon harvesting for the purpose of this year’s First Fish Culture Camp.  So yesterday, for the first time in many years, the fish nets were set for King Salmon.  And that evening, under the watchful eye of a boat of elders and another boat of youth and Hän singers singing ‘Luk Cho’ (which means big fish in the Hän language), the first net was checked and two beautiful King Salmon were harvested.  A special day for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and First Fish Culture Camp, and a very generous and special gift to start Suzanne’s journey of eating local.

Mähsi cho.

The roe from one King Salmon. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

A Spring Treat: Atlin Lake Whitefish

One of the great treats of spring in the Southern Yukon is fresh whitefish from the Yukon end of Atlin Lake. The local fisherman lays a net underneath the ice anytime from late March to early May, and sells his catch under the name Great Northern Fish Company. The season is short and the yield small, but on a good day he can take out 75 fish, each one about weighing about two kilos.

This year, on a blazing, blue-sky morning, Michelle Genest’s husband went out to Atlin Lake to help with the harvest. He came home in the late afternoon with 10 kilos of beautiful pinky-white filets wrapped in 10 500-gram packages. (The harvesting, fileting and packaging all happen on the same day, and the guts feed the eagles and the ravens.)

Michelle and her husband cooked a batch that night, in the simplest way imaginable: dipped in egg and flour and fried in butter. Glorious. Atlin Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) cooks up firm and tender and is so delicate in flavour you have to pay attention. The reward for that attention is the flavour of lake, sky, and a sparkling spring day on the Yukon end of Atlin Lake in late April or early May. It doesn’t get much better.

There’s nothing better than fresh-caught whitefish cooked in butter.

Our local fisherman already has a full roster of customers, but for information on how and where to catch your own whitefish in the Yukon, visit http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/hunting-fishing-trapping/wherefish.php.