UMN researcher discovers concerning chemicals in Grand Portage tribal waters

Researchers are still trying to figure out the cause, and say the chemicals could impact the entire food web.

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Natalie Cierzan

UMN researchers found a variety of chemicals and hormones in waters that the Grand Portage Indian Reservation uses often for fishing. 

There were detectable levels of “chemicals of emerging concern” such as hormones, opiates and stimulants in many bodies of water located in Cook County, Minnesota.Researchers said they will now focus on the potential effects of these chemicals in the water, both on fish and humans.

Out of 158 compounds tested, 117 were found in all of the sites, which is where the band fishes for subsistence.  Researchers said that is an unexpectedly high result.

“We were surprised to find that, even in those more pristine locations, where there really wasn’t a lot of human development, we still found contaminants in those locations. We expected to find contaminants where waste water was being discharged,” said Tiffany Wolf, a researcher and a University assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine.  

The amount of chemicals found were similar regardless of whether the area was developed or not, she said. Researchers are unsure why this is happening and seeking answers. 

“I think there has to be more done on this, so we can understand exactly what’s happened in our waters that are supposed to be clean,” said Tony Swader, a Grand Portage Band member and the Trust Lands administrator. “Without water, we won’t survive.” 

In 2014, researchers met in a workshop with the goal of identifying what environmental contaminants are most likely to affect subsistence. This workshop was the starting point for the partnership between the Grand Portage tribe, University researchers and others.

This research was funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and a University of Minnesota population systems grant.

Seth Moore, a researcher and the director of Biology and Environment for the Grand Portage Band, said he was concerned because these chemicals influence fish in a variety of ways, such as affecting reproduction and their behavior. 

The chemicals may also be impacting the entire food web, Moore added. There are global population declines in many species in the food web, which may result in an environment that looks very different in the future. 

“This is certainly something we should be paying attention to,” Moore said. 

Wastewater treatment plants also don’t treat pharmaceuticals or medicines, he said. The chemicals are designed to be resilient in biological systems, which often make them just as resilient in the environment. 

“Since we are specifically focusing on locations that are important to the subsistence and lifestyle of the Grand Portage tribe, this is important to that tribe in itself and other Indigenous nations around the world,” said Jessica Deere, a researcher and University graduate student in the College of Veterinary Medicine. 

If this is occurring in Minnesota, it may be happening elsewhere, she said. 

“As a native here in Grand Portage and living on a reservation, we try to look seven generations ahead,” Swader said. “… If we can curb some of this or make something better for the future to help eliminate some of this, that would be my goal.” 

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated recommendations issued by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa as a result of this research. The band has made no such recommendations at this time.