Contaminated Fish Mean Loss Of Culture to Penobscot Indians

To Paul Bisulca, the ongoing problem of dioxin-contaminated fish means far more than a lost meal on an annual angling vacation.

As a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, he sees it as a threat to his entire culture. "We are hunters, fishers, and gatherers," says Mr. Bisulca, who was raised on the bass, pickerel, and perch from Maine's Penobscot River. "That's what we've always done and what we still do. It's our identity," he continues.

Though not everyone among the Penobscots has chosen to give up eating fish completely, the 10-year-long fishing advisory has meant the loss of a significant food source for them. The Penobscot fish consumption rate is estimated to have been about 10 times that of non-Indian populations.

This has had a tremendous economic impact on their community, where unemployment is particularly high. The fishing restriction is also in direct conflict with what Bisulca stresses are statutorily protected, aboriginal fishing rights that he says the government should be protecting.

Like a growing number of scientists, Bisulca sees no middle ground when it comes to dioxin: The chemical, which he is convinced is coming from a paper mill on the Penobscot River, needs to be eliminated from river waters completely. For years, he says, the tribe and the State Department of Environmental Protection have tested river fish and found that those above the mill are safe to eat while those below it are not.

BISULCA, a Tribal Representative to the Maine Legislature, calls Maine Gov. Angus King's announcement of the paper mills' commitment to eliminate dioxin discharges a "bold move."

While he emphasizes that everyone has a long way to go in achieving the goal, he is hopeful it can be reached this way rather than through legal action. "For the sake of my tribe and for the sake of all Mainers who choose to or have to eat Penobscot River fish," he said recently, "we must support Governor King in ridding our waters of this poison."

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