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Canadian authorities jeopardize health of native citizens

June 23, 2009

Government fails to adequately inform citizens of possible negative health hazards caused by consuming contaminated whale products

Vancouver, June 22, 2009. The International Whaling Commission meetings start today and a new report titled "Toxic Menu" documents how the Canadian government puts its citizens at risk by trivializing the health risks to consumers of whale meat, which has been proven to be contaminated with toxic substances and bacteria. "Although it′s been several years since the Canadian authorities launched their Northern Contaminants Program with alarming conclusions, they yet have to take measures for actual consumer protection" states Annelise Sorg of the Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society, a registered charitable society that monitors the population status of marine animals in the Canadian Arctic. "This strongly contrasts with the Danish Faroe Islands, where the toxic burden in whale products is similarly high and where the health authorities last year recommended the Danish government put a halt to the consumption of whale meat."

The new report "Toxic Menu", prepared by the non-profit German organization Pro Wildlife and OceanCare in Switzerland, summarizes the contamination found in whale and dolphin products consumed in different whaling nations, as well as the inadequate response from health authorities. "Canadian Inuit in Nunavik (Quebec), the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have been found to carry a very large burden of mercury and of most organochlorines. No doubt that this is related to the consumption of marine mammals", underlines Dr. Sandra Altherr of Pro Wildlife, one of the authors of the "Toxic Menu" report. This applies especially to "muktuk", the skin or blubber of highly contaminated beluga and narwhal whales, considered to be a delicacy among some Inuit. So far, the Canadian authorities have only given advice to women in reproductive years to reduce their consumption of beluga whale and other contaminated "traditional food" – no advice has been given to other population groups. "Instead, the Canadian government claims that hunting and eating belugas and narwhals help keep people fit and healthy." reports Sorg.

Among the toxic substances found in cetacean products, mercury and PCBs (poly-chlorinated biphenyls) have been examined the most. The list of diseases related to the consumption of contaminated whale meat is long and still growing: Premature birth, reduced birth weight, neurological disorders (impact on reaction time, attention span, language and memory) and respiratory infections are only some of the documented problems that children face. Adults have an increased risk of getting Parkinson′s disease, Arteriosclerosis, immune subsystem suppression, and hypertension.

In August 2008, health authorities from the Faeroe Islands, a semi-autonomous region of Denmark, recommended in an open letter to their government that whale meat should no longer be consumed by humans because of high mercury levels. "Although the toxic burden in cetacean products consumed in Canada is at a similar level as in the Faeroe Islands, our government is far from drawing similar consequences." says Sorg, "Instead, Inuit are still encouraged to consume whale products that might damage their wellbeing." For example, last December hunters from Pond Inlet were allowed to kill about 560 narwhals, one of the most contaminated whale species in the world. Local decision makers argued in the media that whale meat consumption is better for children than junk food – as if pop and chips were the only alternative to whale products: Studies done by the Danish Ministry of Environment have proven that "traditional foods" from terrestrial species and from most fish is less contaminated than that from whales and seals.

Another threat, which is so far broadly underestimated but is represented in the "Toxic Menu" Report, is the fact that up to 35.7 percent of narwhals and beluga whales caught in Canada are contaminated with the bacterium Brucella, which induces Brucellosis. This disease can cause headaches, chronic vomiting, epileptic seizures and other such symptoms in humans. People who handle dead cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and consumers of raw whale products are at risk of being infected. "Many Inuit in Canada still eat whale products uncooked, making them especially susceptible to Brucellosis. However, consumers are not being informed by the authorities about these alarming facts", underlines Sorg.

Despite the fact that Canada is a whaling nation and a founding member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Canadian government withdrew its membership when the global ban on whaling was announced in 1982. Although the IWC has issued 4 resolutions requesting Canada stop hunting highly endangered bowhead whales in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has just raised the hunting quota to 3 bowhead whales a year. The bowhead hunts usually take place in August in Nunavut.

Canada continues to participate in IWC meetings as a non-voting non-member country, thus avoiding being accountable to Canadians. The Canadian government delegation will be confronted with this issue at the upcoming 61st IWC annual meetings being held in Madeira, Portugal - from 22nd to 26th June, when health issues will be discussed as part of the official agenda.

For more information contact:
Annelise Sorg
Vancouver Contact
Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society
Phone: (604) 736-9514

Dr. Sandra Altherr
European Contact
Pro Wildlife @ IWC in Portugal
Phone: 011 +49 174-217-5054

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