Warnings this week issued by the states of Oregon and Washington about the consumption of fish pulled from above the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam immediately drew calls from tribal leaders and others for state and federal responses to the contaminant issues.
The advisories say that fishers should avoid eating “resident” fish such as bass, walleye and sturgeon caught in the area from Bonneville Dam one mile upstream to Oregon’s Ruckel Creek. Fish sampled there have shown extremely high levels of, particularly, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). High mercury levels have also been found in fish tissue.
The PCP contamination is believed to stem from a waste disposal site in the river at Bonneville.
The two state health agencies that issued the advisory say that salmon and steelhead, which swim up and down the river past Bonneville but do not linger, can be safely eaten and indeed provided health benefits. Salmon and steelhead are core foodstuffs for the tribes. But resident fish, particularly sturgeon, are also important to tribal members, who have a high fish consumption rate.
Leaders from the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, and Warm Springs tribes are asking Washington and Idaho governors to update their water quality standards and fish consumption rates in response to the state advisories.
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman Joel Moffett sent letters to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter asking the states to prioritize the update of water quality standards that protect tribal members and make water quality a top priority for the region.
CRITFC is the technical support and coordinating agency for fishery management policies of four Columbia River basin treaty tribes: the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe. Each tribe appoints members to serve the commission, which guides CRITFC work.
The tribes will also call on the Northwest congressional delegation to pass toxins reduction legislation for the Columbia Basin, which they say is the largest water body in the United States without a federal toxins reduction program.
The fish consumption advisories cover the entire length of the “Zone 6” fishing area of the Columbia River -- a stretch used for treaty fishing by all four member tribes.
Moffett said that the region needs to focus on long-term solutions to water quality issues rather than ignoring the situation and dealing with the consequences later.
“The tribes believe that the long-term solution to this problem isn’t keeping people from eating contaminated fish -- it’s keeping fish from being contaminated in the first place. Armed with higher fish consumption rates and water quality standards, we hope there will be a greater motivation to remove pollutants from the Columbia River and its tributaries.”
“The level of toxins found in our waterways should concern everyone,” said Paul Lumley, CRITFC executive director. “Treaties signed between the tribes and the United States Government in 1855 secured the tribal fishing right in all usual and accustomed fishing areas. Contaminated fish were not part of the bargain that the tribes made when they signed their treaties.
“Today’s advisory needs to move water quality issues to the forefront of our natural resource agendas and highlights the need to clean up our waterways,” Lumley said. We can no longer afford to have Washington and Idaho delay their responsibilities to ensure clean water in the Columbia River Basin, not only for its fish populations, but for the people who regularly consume them.”
In 2011, Oregon updated its fish consumption rates to 175 grams per day, giving Oregon the most protective water quality standards in the nation. Fish consumption rates are used to calculate water quality standards that protect human health.
Washington and Idaho are currently reevaluating their fish consumption rates. The tribes are urging Washington and Idaho to adopt at least the same rate that Oregon uses to establish water quality standards that are protective of all fish consumers in the region. The 175 grams per day fish consumption rate represents a fish consumption rate that protects most of Oregon’s population.
The American Heart Association recommends that people consume 2 servings of fish per week. Both Idaho and Washington’s current standard protect individuals who consume 6.5 grams per day or approximately 2 servings per month, a rate substantially less than what tribal members consume.
For more information on the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission or the fish consumption advisories visit www.critfc.org.
Kat Brigham, a CRITFC member from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said tribes have known for more than a half century that the Columbia River was contaminated, but relied on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to uphold promises to clean up the mess.
“Up until the 1950s we were able to drink the water,” Brigham said. “In the 50s we started getting sick drinking at Celilo. We’ve known since then it was contaminated. Now another study shows it’s contaminated and needs to be cleaned up. The Corps was supposed to clean it up and they didn’t do it.”
Yakama Nation Chairman Harry Smiskin echoed Brigham’s comments.
“These fish advisories confirm what the Yakama Nation has known for decades,” he said. “State and federal governments can no longer ignore the inadequacy of their regulatory efforts and the failure to clean up the Columbia River.”
The new advisories, Smiskin said, pass the burden of responsibility from industry and government to tribes and people in the region.
“Rather than addressing the contamination, we are being told to reduce our reliance on the Columbia River’s fish,” Smiskin said. “This is unacceptable. The focus should not be ‘do not eat’ – it should be ‘clean up’ the Columbia River.”
David Farrer, Public Health Toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said the advisories are based on data from two separate projects by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
OHA announced the advisories after an analysis of the data, which began in May.
“The contaminants at both Bonneville Dam and the Middle Columbia have been there for decades, so unfortunately, people have been exposed for much longer than the last four months,” Farrer said. “It is not the contamination that is new, but rather our information about the contamination.”
Farrer said health effects from eating these fish are not expected to be immediate or acute.
“The greatest risk is for people who have been eating large numbers of these resident fish over their lifetimes,” he said. “Our recommendations is that people who have been eating many of these resident fish over their lifetimes notify their primary care physicians of their potential exposures so that the physician can watch for signs of illnesses related to PCBs and mercury, and catch and treat illnesses early if they occur.”
The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership’s Debrah Marriott called the advisories “a wakeup call.”
“The recent release of fish consumption advisories is a strong indicator that the Columbia River needs comprehensive toxics reduction, clean up and monitoring,” said Marriott, the organization’s executive director. “This further justifies the need for a Columbia River Restoration Act to directly address toxics in the Columbia and fund restoration efforts here on par with other large water bodies around the country. We have known about the toxics in the Columbia for a long time.”
Since 2008, the partnership has advocated for federal investment to address toxics in the Columbia River. In February 2010, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the Columbia River Restoration Act of 2010 (H. 4652 and S. 3550). Congress did not act on thebill before they adjourned that year.
The Estuary Partnership is currently working with partners to reintroduce the Columbia River Restoration Act. The act would authorize Congress to appropriate funds through a local grants program for toxics reduction, cleanup and monitoring to match federal support of other water bodies of similar significance to the nation.
“Data is clearer than ever: toxic contamination in the Columbia River Basin poses a significant threat to the environment and human health. The Columbia River Restoration Act is an important step towards improving water quality and reducing toxics in the river,” Marriott said.
The Estuary Partnership was established in 1995 by the governors of Washington and Oregon and the US EPA to provide regional collaboration, to advance science and to get on-the-ground results in the lower Columbia River and estuary. It is a collaborative program of the states of Oregon and Washington, federal agencies, tribal governments, non-profit organizations, businesses and economic interests and citizens.
For more information, see CBB, Sept. 27, 2012, “ Fish Consumption Rate, Water Quality Standards: Should Idaho, Washington Follow Oregon’s Lead?” http://www.cbbulletin.com/423011.aspx