Fish consumption rate and what it means to you | Noo-Kayet, Our Village

By Rory O’Rourke

Many media outlets have discussed the controversial topic of the fish consumption rate, however, many have neglected to portray the significance of this issue for Native American tribes.

The fish consumption rate is an important number used to calculate the acceptable dose of pollutants in surface waters. Each pollutant is determined to have a safe dose based on the results of previous research studies. The state Department of Ecology calculates how much the population is receiving based on environmental samples and the frequency and length of exposure. Therefore, by raising the fish consumption rate, it will lower the acceptable amount of pollutants allowed in state waters.

It is the responsibility of public health authorities to protect the most susceptible individuals in a population. An updated fish consumption rate by the DOE is not intended to be an additional regulation to hurt businesses and municipal governments. It is meant to protect the more susceptible and higher fish-consuming populations based on a more accurate assessment of actual consumption rates. This ranges from children and the elderly in the general population to tribal members, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and sports fishermen.

Federally recognized tribes in Washington (including the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe) have treaty rights with the federal government that protect their traditional lifestyle of fishing and harvesting shellfish within their usual and accustomed areas.

The Treaty of Point No Point, signed in 1855 between territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens and the S’Klallams, allows the S’Klallam tribes to fish, harvest shellfish, hunt and gather in exchange for title to most of their ancestral lands. The Boldt Decision in 1974 upheld the tribes’ right to manage and harvest their treaty resources and requires that the resources remain protected.

Resource gathering is an important aspect to tribal well-being. Fish and shellfish provide tribal members with a low-cost source of food that is high in such nutrients as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, iodine, selenium, and vitamins A, C, and D. Subsistence harvesting is a healthy physical and spiritual activity that is central to the identity of many Native people.

If tribal members lose access to natural foods due to contamination, other low-cost alternatives, such as fast food, can lead to diets high in saturated fats, cholesterol and carbohydrates and lacking in mineral nutrition. Potential risks include higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and depression. Therefore, traditional foods are essential to maintaining the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of tribal members.

Many scientific and public health experts, including the state Department of Health and the EPA, agree that Washington’s current fish consumption rate is inadequate for protecting public health. The current fish consumption rate used by DOE for water quality standards is 6.5 grams per day. EPA recommends using a rate of 17.5 grams per day for the general U.S. population. Since Washington is a coastal state with a legacy of high seafood consumption, as well as a region with subsistence tribal fishers, having a fish consumption rate lower than the U.S. general population is seriously flawed.

The EPA recommends a rate of 170 grams per day to protect subsistence fishers. In 2011, Oregon updated its water-quality criterion with a fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day. However, even these numbers might not be protective of the average tribal consumer in Washington. A Suquamish consumption study determined that the average Suquamish tribal member consumes about 214 grams per day. The highest consumers had rates as high as 796 grams per day.

Therefore, revising the fish consumption rate is not an effort to limit the profit of businesses, raise taxes, or increase government regulation. It is an effort to better protect the public, including the Native American community and other high fish-consuming populations. It is also a way to safeguard aquatic natural resources for all current and future Washington residents.

— Rory O’Rourke is an  environmental scientist  in the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe Natural Resources Department.


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