Is it the Fish, or the Water?

Gov. Jay Inslee has announced his intention to increase the official estimate for how much fish we can safely eat in Washington, from 6.3 grams per day (about the size of a Ritz cracker) to 175 grams per day (about 6 ounces). This decision about how much fish we eat will determine how clean the water in which the fish swim needs to be.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act set limits on the amount of mercury that can be in public waterways. The mercury limit is based on estimated rates of fish consumption, because mercury accumulates in the tissues of carnivorous fish.

In the 1980s, using information gleaned from national surveys, the EPA set an average fish consumption rate of 6.3 grams per day. In 2000, the EPA increased the rate to 17.5 grams per day.

The higher the estimated fish consumption rate, the cleaner the water needs to be. Likewise, maintaining a lower fish consumption rate leads to lower standards for water quality.

Raising Washington’s fish consumption rate (FCR) puts pressure on industry and municipalities to reduce the discharge of pollutants that find their way into our waterways. Increasing the FCR will put pressure on the state to reduce storm water runoff—and preventing pollution from storm water runoff is the Puget Sound Partnership’s number one strategy for helping restore the health of the Sound. Raising the FCR not only protects human health, but also the health of our rivers, streams and the Sound itself.

In 2011, Oregon raised its FCR to 175 grams/day, the level Inslee is proposing, to reflect the diets of people from the Umatilla tribe, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and avid anglers. According to Catherine O'Neill, member of the Center for Progressive Reform and Professor of Law at Seattle University, data on fish consumption rates among local tribal populations in Washington have been available for the past 20 years. O’Neill reports that the data has continued to mount, with “recent studies documenting fish intake by Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders and by other Washington tribes at rates of 236 grams/day, 489 grams/day, and 800 grams/day.”

Inslee is proposing that Washington’s FCR be increased to reflect the amount of fish people in the state eat, but he is also proposing that the acceptable rate of cancer associated with eating fish be increased from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.

As O’Neill writes, the math behind the proposal is not impressive: “What appears to be a significant step forward (an increased FCR) is nearly undermined by a significant step backward (a less protective cancer risk level). Simple math gives the net effect: it is as if the FCR were being nudged upward to just 17.5 grams/day – and our waters therefore only clean enough to support a fish meal every two weeks.”

Business and industry leaders in Washington have expressed concern that raising the FCR without setting a lower acceptable risk for cancer will lead to “economic turmoil.” Oregon raised its FCR without increasing the “acceptable level” of cancer risk, without this effect. An article posted by Ansel Herz (http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/a-wonky-decision-that-will-define-the-future-of-our-food/Content?oid=20004980) quotes a water quality program manager with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality who said the department was not aware of any business that closed as a result of the state’s rule change, nor were there job losses.

Nonetheless, support for Inslee’s compromise from businesses and some unions is strong.

A potential challenge to Inslee’s proposal may come from the EPA, as shown in a letter from Region 10 director Dennis McLerran to Senator Doug Ericksen, chair of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. In the letter, McLerran outlines the EPA’s opposition to increasing acceptable levels of cancer risk, arguing that to do so would mean “tribes, certain low-income, minority communities and other high fish consuming groups would be provided less protection than they have now.”

The right thing to do is follow the lead of Oregon state by setting fish consumption rates using the best available information and maintaining lower levels of acceptable risks of cancer. To do otherwise is disingenuous.

Washingtonians who eat wild fish have the right to do so, without risking their lives. The right to pollute the waters in which the fish swim — those rights need to be curtailed.