Health Wellbeing

Health & Wellbeing

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Habitat & Species

Changes in aquatic ecosystem health in the Athabasca sub-basin are having moderate impacts on the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities. Health and wellbeing are closely linked to access to traditional foods. Many Indigenous communities report consuming less fish than in the past in response to concerns about contamination of the water and fish from upstream industrial projects and elevated mercury levels in some fish populations. Access to fishing and trapping areas is also disrupted by lower water levels and more navigable hazards, particularly in the Athabasca River. A team of scientists, elders and trappers have documented a significant decline in muskrat populations from the Peace-Athabasca Delta in recent decades, and as a result, fewer Indigenous communities consume muskrat as part of their diet. Low availability of scientific data was found for levels of country food consumption in the Athabasca sub-basin.

The following table summarizes the availability of information for each Health and Wellbeing indicator.

Signs and Signals

Indigenous Knowledge Information and Data

Indigenous Knowledge Availability in Public Sources1

Science Information and Data

Science Data Availability2

Food sources

Decrease in country food consumption (overall or specific species); access or safety considerations

Many observations from several locations.

Statistics on the number of people eating wild food versus store food

Low data availability, inconsistent monitoring.

1 Qualifiers for the availability of local and Indigenous Knowledge observations in publicly available sources: Limited = 1-2 observations; Some = 3-4 observations; Many = 5 or more observations
2 Qualifiers for the availability of science data in publicly available sources: Low = Individual studies or locations; Many = Network of monitoring stations across the basin

Food Sources

Decreases in the consumption of country foods and access and safety concerns in reaching harvesting areas have been reported in the Athabasca sub-basin.

Changes in fish health condition and contamination have led the many communities in the lower and middle Athabasca to reduce their consumption of fish. The closure of the commercial fishery on Lake Athabasca and increasing observations and concerns for the contamination of fish harvested in the region have led the Fort Chipewyan community and Mikisew Cree to consume less fish.[101],[102] The Cree of Lesser Slave Lake are also reportedly consuming fewer fish and other country foods, citing concerns for contamination from nearby industry projects.[103]

Most notably, Mikisew members have seen a rise in the number of deformities in fish, to the degree that many members no longer consume wild caught fish,

Parlee and Maloney, 2017

The sharp decline in muskrat abundance observed in the Peace-Athabasca Delta since the 1930s means that fewer trappers and families are enjoying muskrat as a country food than in the past.[104] Mikisew Cree elders have recently noted they are hesitant to consume muskrat and other country foods due to knowledge of the bioaccumulation of toxins in fish and wildlife.[105]

Muskrats depend on open water habitats with shallow water conditions. Image source: CheepShot via Flickr Creative Commons (copyright-free).

Access to traditional use areas along the Athabasca River for harvesting country foods is more difficult for some Indigenous communities than in the past. Increased land development for oil and gas, forestry, mining, and roadways as well as a general lack of access to equipment or transportation to harvesting areas are identified as key barriers that limit Indigenous communities in the lower Athabasca region from using more traditional foods.[106],[107] Lower water levels and an increase in navigable hazards in the lower Athabasca River and its tributaries also create challenges for access and travel to preferred harvesting areas.[108] Concerns for the safety of country foods are also common among communities in the Athabasca sub-basin. In the Peace-Athabasca Delta region, Fort Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree elders have reduced confidence in the consumption of fish harvested from Lake Athabasca and the surrounding area due to concerns for contamination from mercury and other sources.[109],[110] The Lesser Slave Lake Cree have similarly reported safety concerns for consuming wild fish and other country foods harvested near Lesser Slave Lake and Swan Hills Waste Treatment Centre.[111]