Industrial chemicals threaten hunting and fishing traditions

By Shannon Kelleher

For more than a century, members of the indigenous Penobscot Nation, who live along the Maine river from which they take their name, have mourned the loss of the migratory fish that sustained their ancestors.

Dams built by developers in the 19th and early 20th centuries along the Penobscot River cut off access to the ocean, preventing native fish from returning each year to spawn in their historic habitats.

A years-long restoration project was completed in 2016, reopening 2,000 miles of river to Atlantic salmon and other fish considered important nutritional sources for the people of the region as well as fish-eating birds and mammals, including eagles and river otters. Eleven species of native migratory fish returned to the Penobscot River due to the restoration project.

“We were very excited,” said Daniel Kusnierz, the tribe’s water resources program manager. “These would have been the species the tribe would have relied on heavily for food.”

But the celebration was short-lived: Though the fish have returned, researchers from the Penobscot Nation and government agencies have documented an array of toxic chemicals contaminating them, including dreaded per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances linked to various cancers and other health problems.

Known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” the class of industrial chemicals is almost impossible to eradicate and is increasingly documented in fish and other wildlife around the world. The plight of the Penobscot Nation is yet another example of how people everywhere are finding it increasingly difficult to escape the legacy of industrial pollution that threatens human and environmental health.