State’s fish diet spurs look at water quality

SPOKANE — Washington residents eat more fish than the national average, yet the state’s water quality standards are based on the assumption that people here eat one 7-ounce serving of fish per month, according to a toxicologist with the state Department of Health.

The state has begun the process of reviewing fish consumption levels, with the ultimate goal of tougher water quality standards to protect the health of the fish-consuming public, The Spokesman-Review reported Monday.

From salmon and steelhead to walleye and lake trout, fish is a staple of many residents’ diets. As a result, residents are potentially exposed to unhealthy levels of mercury, lead, PCBs and dioxins — waterborne toxins that accumulate in fish tissue and can hurt brain development in fetuses and young children.

“The paradox of eating fish is that it provides benefits but also has risks,” said toxicologist David McBride. “Our current discharge standards don’t protect you.

“Washington uses one of the lowest fish consumption rates in the nation to set water quality standards, but we have some of the highest fish-consuming populations in the nation,” he said.

Fish consumption rates spike among American Indians, recreational fishers and people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, according to studies conducted in Washington. Some members of Puget Sound tribes eat up to 12 ounces of fish per day.

Nearby Oregon has become a national leader on the issue. After years of urging from Columbia River tribes, Oregon updated its fish consumption rates to 23 meals per month. Last year, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality adopted tougher pollution discharge standards to reduce toxins flowing into coastal bays, lakes and streams.

Washington tribes support efforts to make fish safer to eat, said Gary Passmore, environmental trust manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The Tribe is constructing a new salmon hatchery downstream from Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia, with the goal of restoring fish as a key part of tribal members’ diets.

“People are eating fish and people are going to eat more fish,” Passmore said.

Reducing toxins in fish will be a lengthy process, however, even after stricter water quality standards are adopted, he said. Many of the toxic compounds persist in the environment for decades. The Okanogan River, which forms part of the Colville Reservation’s boundary, still has high levels of the long-banned insecticide DDT, which continues to wash into the river from agricultural fields.

“We’re scratching our heads about what to do about it,” Passmore said.

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