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Qawalangin Tribe teams up with scientists researching contamination in subsistence foods

Frank von Hippel was pulling out a pot that was left overnight in Unalaska Lake. He's surrounded by other scientists who are part of the environmental monitoring project looking to see what was caught.
Photo courtesy of Ellis Berry
Frank von Hippel was pulling out a pot that was left overnight in Unalaska Lake. He's surrounded by other scientists who are part of the environmental monitoring project looking to see what was caught.

The United States military left many contaminated areas around Unalaska when they pulled out after World War II, like oil tanks and chemicals that polluted streams and soils. Now, the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska is teaming up with scientists from universities in Arizona, Nevada and Alaska to address the contamination.

The research is part of a four-year grant project through the National Science Foundation. One of the first steps is collecting fish from lakes and streams that could be environmentally polluted. The fish in them could cause health problems for people who eat them regularly.

“Okay, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 – that's it,” said Frank von Hippel as he counted fish that were collected in a pot left overnight in Unalaska Lake.

He's a scientist with the University of Arizona. The fish he collected are one to two years old.

Jen Schmidt, a scientist with the University of Alaska, was also collecting fish at the lake.

 Hundreds of one to two year old Sticklebacks were collected at
Photo courtesy of Ellis Berry
Hundreds of young stickleback fish were put into labeled bags to be transported and researched in labs around the United States.

“You got a bunch, that's fine,” said von Hippel. “They're all sticklebacks. We can take hundreds of sticklebacks.”

Sticklebacks are some of the fish species the scientists were hoping to catch — those and salmon.

The Army Corps of Engineers has spent years cleaning up Formerly Used Defense Sites, or FUDS, around the island; they’re still working on cleaning up dozens of sites that are left. FUDS may have persistent organic pollutants and toxic metals like mercury and arsenic, which are harmful, especially if consumed at high levels.

The Qawalangin Tribe is also involved in cleanup efforts. They’ve teamed up with the National Science Foundation and the university scientists, who are collecting fish and soil samples in areas that community members use for subsistence fish and berries to test them for pollutants. Those areas include Morris Cove, Humpy Cove and Summer Bay Lake.

Elise Contreras, environmental remediation manager for the Qawalangin Tribe, said this data collection could lead to changes of livelihood.

“We want people to be empowered to participate in their subsistence activities and to be able to do whatever recreation and feel safe and comfortable eating, fishing, hunting in these areas without concern of contaminants from the past,” Contreras said.

 showing baby a fish in a bag at Unalaska Lake
Photo courtesy of Ellis Berry
Jen Schmidt shows Elise Contreras' baby a fish that they just bagged from Unalaska Lake.

Von Hippel presented his work to Unalaskans twice throughout his week-long stay on the island. He said this research project in Unalaska can be a model for communities who are currently dealing with FUD sites contaminating subsistence foods.

“It's important that it's a community engaged project,” said von Hippel. “And as a community-engaged project, the community is guiding where the sampling should take place and what should be done about any problems that are encountered during the sampling.”

Collected soils and fish were packaged at the Tribe’s warehouse and flown with the scientists back to their labs in Anchorage, Nevada and Arizona. Once the results are finalized, they’ll be shared with the Tribe and presented to the Unalaska community.

If you’d like to participate in the years-long research study, you can contact Elise Contreras at

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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