So you’ve eaten smelts, what about all the warnings you have been hearing about?

Rainbow Smelts caught in the Batchewana Bay area early May 2022. Photo by Devan Clement

In talking with locals, “smelting” is almost a rite of passage in our area, and consuming those smelts is a yearly delicacy for many in Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area.

If you’re new to the area, “smelting” in this instance is not what Algoma Steel does on the waterfront, but instead refers to catching 3-10 inch long Rainbow Smelts directly from cold-water rivers and lakes.

However, while they used to be healthy and highly consumable, that may no longer be the case.

The Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) currently have a Fish Consumption Advisory for Lake Superior 11 – Goulais Bay area, defined as “south of Batchawana Bay to the St. Marys River”, recommending zero meals for Rainbow Smelt over concerns originating from the Michigan side of the border.

Source: Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks – Superscripts in the advisory tables identify the contaminant or group of contaminants that are causing consumption restrictions within a given species/location: (5) Toxaphene is an extremely persistent insecticide in the aquatic environment. It was removed from general use in Canada in 1974 and restricted in the United States in 1982.

The concerns revolve around observed levels of a pesticide known as Toxaphene as well as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found not only in Rainbow Smelt, but other popular sport fish species such as Lake Trout caught from the Lake Superior basin.

Toxaphene is an extremely persistent insecticide in the aquatic environment and is a mixture of over 670 different chemicals, produced by reacting chlorine gas with camphene. It was removed from general use in Canada in 1974, restricted in the United States in 1982 and banned globally by the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Toxaphene is considered a carcinogen.

“Toxaphene was a widely used pesticide on cotton, other crops, and in livestock and poultry. In 1982, most of its uses were cancelled and in 1990, all uses were cancelled in the United States. The major effect of toxaphene is central nervous system (CNS) stimulation, which results in convulsive seizures. No studies are available on acute (short-term) inhalation exposure to toxaphene in humans or animals,” says the EPA. “Chronic (long-term) inhalation exposure to toxaphene in humans results in reversible respiratory toxicity, while chronic, oral exposure in animals has resulted in effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, adrenal and thyroid glands, CNS, and the immune system. Animal studies have reported an increased incidence of thyroid gland tumors and liver tumors via ingestion. EPA has classified toxaphene as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen.”

Lake Superior, North America’s largest freshwater lake, is known for its cold water which tends to attract toxaphene which can be transported around the world in the atmosphere and hang around in an environment for potentially up to 14 years. Once in the water, it takes a while to break down where it accumulates in sediment and fish tissues.

Related Story: Anglers advised not to consume any Smelts caught south of Batchewana Bay to St. Mary’s headwaters

There have been studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States on what acute exposure to Toxaphene looks like in humans.

“Acute oral exposure to toxaphene in humans results in CNS stimulation, with the major effect being convulsive seizures. The dose necessary to induce nonfatal convulsions in humans is approximately 10 milligrams per kilogram body weight per day (mg/kg/day).”

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry consuming smelts is a way for it to get into your blood system.

“People who eat large quantities of fish, shellfish, or wild game animals from areas contaminated with toxaphene may have higher exposure to this substance since these
animals tend to accumulate toxaphene in fatty tissues,” says the ATSDR.

They even go as far as warning about death due to exposure.

“Breathing, eating, or drinking high amounts of toxaphene could damage the nervous system, liver, and kidneys, and even cause death. However, since toxaphene is no longer
used in the United States, most people would not be exposed to high levels of it,” continues ATSDR.  Studies showed that animals that ate food or drank water containing toxaphene had effects on the liver, kidneys, and immune system. It is not known whether toxaphene can affect reproduction in humans.”

This past March, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) reissued a precautionary consumption guideline for Lake Superior smelt due to PFAS, recommending that people eat no more than one serving per month due to elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a perfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS). MDHHS Eat Safe Fish guidelines suggest a serving size of eight ounces for adults and two to four ounces for children.

Rainbow Smelts caught in the Batchewana Bay area early May 2022. Photo by Devan Clement

According to local fishermen SaultOnline/ONNtv has had the opportunity to speak with, upwards of about 3 in 10 smelts being caught are showing signs of blistering on their bodies, however, it is not known whether or not this may be an indication of Toxaphene or other forms of contamination.

Regardless of the warnings, many local restaurants are still serving up this annual treat and many individuals are finding themselves getting into the “smelting” mood with indications that the Ontario MECP will be updating their Fish Consumption Advisory for the Goulais Bay area later this year to reflect new recommendations of up to 8 meals per month after lower levels of toxins have been observed recently.

Thank you for choosing SaultOnline/ONNTV as your source for news and information in Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area.



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