Fish for the Future: Our Health and Livelihoods Depend on It

by Catherine O'Neill

July 11, 2012

When environmental agencies set standards limiting toxic pollution in our waters, they theoretically aim to protect people who are exposed to these toxics by eating fish.  Currently, Washington state’s water quality standards protect only those who consume no more than one fish meal per month.  That means that those of us who eat more fish than this do so at our peril.    

Washington’s Department of Ecology had announced some years back that it intended to update the fish consumption rate (FCR) that in turn sets pollution limits for water and sediment cleanup across the state.  This was a welcome and long overdue step.  Washington’s current water quality standards are based on surveys of people’s fish consumption practices back in 1973-74.  Its cleanup standards are only slightly less outdated.

But Ecology’s effort is being fought by the industries responsible for contaminating Washington’s waters with such toxic pollutants as PCBs, mercury, and dioxins.  A more accurate FCR would mean more protective environmental standards, and these industries don’t want to have to pay the bill for reducing or cleaning up their own pollution.  And it appears that Ecology may be succumbing to industry pressure: it had been saying it would soon issue new standards, but now the timeline for updating its water quality and sediments rules may be uncertain.

An increased FCR would recognize that Washingtonians actually consume a lot more fish (a term that includes shellfish) than the dated studies suppose.  Washington’s current standard is 6.5 grams/day — less than a quarter of an ounce. (For reference, that's the equivalent of a small forkful of fish.) The FCR is the linchpin for environmental standards for our waters; so, currently, pollution in a given body of water need only be limited to a level that protects someone who eats just a forkful of fish each day. Ecology’s analysis of the most recent data led it to propose a draft FCR range of 157 to 267 grams/day (about 5.5 to 9.5 oz. a day).  This range is based in part on recent studies of Asian and Pacific Islanders in King County (in which Seattle is located) and of tribes in the Puget Sound and Columbia River Basin, although the highest consumers in these groups depend even more heavily on fish.  As these more current numbers show, environmental standards based on a 6.5 grams/day FCR are grossly underprotective. 

An increased FCR would also appreciate the extraordinary health benefits of eating fish.  Not only do Washingtonians eat a lot of fish, we should eat a lot of fish.  Fish are an excellent source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and a host of other nutrients essential to human health.   A 2010 study found that eating a daily serving of fish rather than red meat “was associated with a 24-percent lower risk” of coronary heart disease.  One 6-ounce fish serving per day translates to 170.1 grams/day.   

An increased FCR, moreover, would appreciate the economic benefits of ensuring that our finfish and shellfish are safe to eat.  Washingtonians are shellfish growers, commercial fishers, and restaurateurs.  We depend on clean waters and abundant resources for our livelihoods.  According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, non-treaty commercial and recreational fishing in Washington support “an estimated 16,374 jobs and $540 million in personal income” annually.  What’s more, fish could be a growth industry for Washington.  The fish consumption rates quoted above present a snapshot of “suppressed” consumption.  Many people would consume more fish, but for depletion and contamination.  

Yet, at present, toxic contamination casts a pall on our fisheries:  fish consumption advisories warn people to limit their intake of fish from waters throughout Washington, due to toxic pollutants in fish tissue.  An increased FCR would set us on the path toward cleaning up and preventing contamination, and thus being able to lift these advisories.  This is a path, of course, that was envisioned by the Clean Water Act and by our cleanup laws, which seek to restore our waters to a healthy, “fishable” state.

Finally, an increased FCR would acknowledge Washington’s obligation to honor the tribes’ rights to fish, secured by treaties and other agreements.  These rights are obviously rendered hollow if the fish are unfit for human consumption.  While it falls far short of protecting tribal consumption, the draft FCR range published by Ecology makes important strides in the right direction.

Indeed, the fishing tribes have been leaders in the effort to spur Ecology to increase the FCR and ensure the long-term health of the fisheries.  The tribes have sought to remind Ecology not only of its obligations under the treaties and other laws, but also of the growth potential for a more robust resource – to the benefit of all Washingtonians. As Shawn Yanity, Chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, emphasizes:

Washingtonians eat a lot more fish and shellfish than most people in the country. If those resources were healthier and more plentiful, we would all eat more. We need to stop debating about how much fish and shellfish we eat, and get on with the important business of protecting our water, our resources and the public’s health.

For too long, polluters in Washington have gotten a free “pass” at the expense of all Washingtonians who eat fish or who depend on fish for a living.  Until Ecology updates the FCR, our health and livelihoods will continue to suffer.  Ecology should work now to ensure a clean and healthy fishery resource into the future.  This is a future we can be proud to bequeath to our children.  It should not be thwarted by some industries who seek to continue their polluting ways.

Why should it be necessary for people living in washington to pollute thier own environment and fall a prey to toxic diseases??? This is all absolutely rubbish! !!!!
— maseerah moazzam
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Catherine A. O'Neill is a Habitat Policy Analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and a former Professor of Law at Seattle University School of Law.

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