Some people, because of culture or because of necessity, rely on fishing as a way to supply an important part of their family’s diet. While fish is healthful food, experts warn that fish from lakes and rivers can be contaminated by pollutants. In the first of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups… the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… conveying that warning to some cultures is especially difficult:
Some people, because of culture or because of necessity, rely on fishing as a
way to supply an important part of their family’s diet. While fish is healthful food,
experts warn that fish from lakes and rivers can be contaminated by pollutants.
In the first of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating
contaminated fish to ethnic groups… the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… conveying that warning to some
cultures is especially difficult:
As the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam war, many people who
had been allies from Laos, Cambodia, and South Viet Nam found their way to the U.S. Some of
these people have always relied on fish for a large part of their diet.
After settling in the United States, they naturally turned to public lakes and rivers and began
fishing. They ran into a couple of problems. First, U.S. conservations laws put limits on the size
and how many fish they could catch, something they were not used to. Second, health officials
and conservation officials began to warn them about contamination. They told them chemical
pollutants could harm development in children and fetuses.
Josee Cung is with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She says many of the
Southeast Asian immigrants were skeptical. They thought the government was conspiring to get
them to buy ocean fish from stores rather than take free fish from the lakes and rivers. Cung says
the immigrants had never heard of such a thing as contaminants you couldn’t see.
“PCB, mercury, they don’t understand that. So, that’s the big challenge. So, there are real
cultural, but there are also real educational barriers.”
As she distributed fish advisories suggesting that certain fish had higher levels of contamination,
Cung found the Southeast Asian immigrants were astonished. She says they are a practical
people. They feel if that can’t see something wrong with the fish, it must be okay to eat.
“‘But they’re fat! They’re shiny! They are big!’ You know, ‘But they are good to eat!’ So, that’s
the kind of thing. It’s more prevalent than relying on the advisory to change behavior.”
The State of Minnesota had pamphlets of the advisories printed up in the various languages of the
immigrants and handed them out at every opportunity.
Pat McCann is a research scientist with the Department of Health. She’s worked closely with
Josee Cung to try to explain the fish contaminants issue.
“But we found, with the Southeast Asian populations, the written translations aren’t that effective
because that group seems to communicate more verbally. So, in order to do outreach with those
groups, we try to do presentations and reach community groups in that way.”
And so Minnesota took a more hands-on approach. Josee Cung says instead of handing out
pamphlets alone, they started meeting with leaders in the various Southeast Asian communities in
Minnesota. For example, the Hmong, who helped retrieve downed U.S. pilots during the war are
a people of clans. Cung found if they could demonstrate to clan leaders ways to trim away the fat
of fish where contaminants such as PCBs concentrate and show which fish have lower levels of
contaminants, the word would spread throughout the community. Cung also found that it was
important not just to talk to the anglers who got the fishing license – usually men.
“And we go in homes doing cooking. And really check out their kitchen and say ‘Oh, this is how
you should do.’ And it’s most effective because it’s the women that prepare. He hasn’t got a
clue. He bring the fish home and leave it to the women. And the women decide how to cook it.”
Minnesota’s outreach program with Southeast Asian cultures is pretty advanced. Not every
government in the Great Lakes basin is as active. In recent years, the International Joint
Commission, the body that monitors the U.S. and Canadian boundary waters treaties and
agreements, has been admonishing the states and provinces to do more.
Alan Hayton is with the Ontario Ministry of Environment. He says the governments have taken
the message to heart, but finding the money to do the job is always a problem.
“We do have some communications with some groups such as in Ontario, such as the Chinese
community, which is well-organized and receptive to the information that’s in the guide. But, it’s
difficult. We don’t. We do the best job we can given the resources that we have.”
The International Joint Commission warns that it’s important that the states and provinces work
harder to reach cultures, such as those from Southeast Asia, that rely heavily on fish for protein.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.