Provoked by increasing health risks to their vulnerable high fish-consuming population, tribal leaders are calling for prompt state and federal responses to Monday’s announcement of fish consumption advisories for the Columbia River by Washington and Oregon state health authorities.
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 Oregon and Washington’s resident fish consumption advisory for the Columbia River. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman Joel Moffett has sent letters to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Idaho Gov. C.L. “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.
The tribes will also call on the Northwest Congressional delegation to pass toxins reduction legislation for the Columbia Basin, the largest water body in the United States without a federal toxins reduction program.
The requests come after Oregon and Washington issued the fish consumption advisories that encompass the entire length of the Zone 6 fishing area of the Columbia River - a stretch used for treaty fishing by all four member tribes.
According to Rose Longoria, regional superfund project coordinator for the Yakama Nation, the fish advisories are recommendations from state health authorities to limit consumption of specific resident fish in the Columbia due to elevated levels of contamination.
“The Yakama Nation has fishing rights throughout the Columbia River [under the Treaty of 1855] and we are concerned with adverse effects to natural resources in the region,” Longoria told The Enterprise on Monday. “The fish consumption advisories confirm what we have known for decades: that industrial contamination, agricultural run-off, and atmospheric pollution have adversely affected the Columbia River and its resources.”
Over the past several years, Longoria continued, the Yakama Nation has expressed its concerns to the states and federal regulatory agencies about contaminated sites along the Columbia and called for a clean-up of these sites to protect river resources.
“Now, with the release of fish consumption advisories, the federal government and state can no longer ignore the need for clean-up or the inadequate protection afforded Columbia River resources,” Longoria said, and noted that federal and state governments are asking tribal members and the public to reduce their reliance on resources instead of taking steps to clean up the problem.
“Rather than addressing the contamination, we are being told to reduce our reliance on the Columbia River’s fish,” Yakama Nation Chairman Harry Smiskin said in a news release dated Sept. 23. “This is unacceptable. The focus should not be ‘do not eat,’ it should be ‘clean up,’ the Columbia River.”
Moffett of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said 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,” Moffett stated. “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, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “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. 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 two servings of fish per week. Both Idaho and Washington’s current standard protect individuals who consume 6.5 grams per day or approximately two 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.