Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans
This was recently highlighted at the 2002 AMAP meeting in Rovenemi, Finland by the AMAP human health working group, and at the 2002 Arctic Council meeting in Saariselka, Finland. The working group also stated that public health officials should use methylmercury intake guidelines only as tools to craft dietary advice, not as a strict standard. The AMAP pointed out that the EPA reference dose for methylmercury only considers the potential risks and does not take into account the well-known benefits of fish consumption.
Local Risk Management Issues for Mercury in Fish from Alaska
It is widely recognized that local risk management is an essential element of developing optimal public health advice regarding consumption of locally-caught fish.14,75 States vary tremendously in many relevant ways, including reliance on locally caught fish, consumption practices, contaminant concentrations in local fish, and the health status of local populations. When only weak data support an association between an exposure and adverse outcomes, as is the case for mercury exposure at the low levels present in most Alaska fish, then public health officials can place more weight on factors such as local economics and cultural considerations when developing consumption advice.
Alaska has many unique characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of the nation (and that distinguish individual regions within Alaska from each other). These include the vast geographical distances and limited transportation systems that limit alternate food choices in rural villages, a heavy reliance on fish as a subsistence food, both for basic caloric needs and nutrition and as an anchor for Native culture, and an abundant supply of fish with extremely low mercury levels. Alaska’s unique characteristics, in combination with the weak data supporting any association between low-level mercury exposure and neurological outcomes, make the generic joint advice of EPA and FDA, which encourages women and young children to limit their fish consumption to 12 ounces weekly,2 inappropriate for the State of Alaska. 3
Description of Alaska Alaska, encompassing 586,412 square miles, is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. To walk across this “great land” at its widest point would be to walk from California to Florida: 2,400 miles from west to east and 1,420 miles from north to south.
The 2005 Census estimated the population of Alaska as 663,661 persons. Of these, 70% were white. Alaska Native people comprised 16% of the population and 26% of births. Within the Alaska Native population are the following groups: Aleut, Eskimo (Yupik, Inupiat), and Indian (Athabaskan, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian). Based on 1999 estimates, 42% of the State’s population resided in Anchorage, 52% in the three largest cities (Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau), and 77% in the five largest census areas (Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and Juneau). While 70% of all Alaskans lived in urban or suburban areas of 2,500 persons or more, 46% of Alaska Native people lived in rural towns and villages with less than 1,000 persons.
Only five of Alaska’s urban centers are connected by road. Alaska includes vast wilderness areas dotted with isolated villages, some with fewer than a dozen persons. Many villages lack basic public health infrastructure such as in-home piped water and septic systems,76 and remain accessible only by small airplane or boat. Throughout rural Alaska, local economies are poorly developed and many residents live below the federal poverty line. Most villagers in rural Alaska rely on the land and its wildlife as a major food source; subsistence food gathering includes hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering wild berries and other plant products.