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How much fish is healthy? Wash. tribes push for updated standard


How much fish should you eat? The state Department of Health recommends two meals of fish a week. But the Department of Ecology assumes people eat far less, about the equivalent of one meal per month.

That’s because it uses those assumptions to calculate how much water pollution can be legally allowed in Washington—pollution that ends up in the fish we eat.

Efforts to change that standard have stalled, and Washington's tribes, fed up, are calling on federal authorities to intervene.

Washington’s current standard assumes people eat less than 8 ounces of fish per month—about what’s in a large basket of fish and chips. It’s not realistic and everyone knows it, says Swinomish Tribe chairman Brian Cladoosby.

“I just had two big pieces of halibut last night. It was probably close to 12 ounces,” Cladoosby said. “And Dad brought me over a baked King salmon just the other night. I mean, that’s all I eat.”

The tribes are pushing for the same standard that the EPA recommended for Oregon, which assumes people eat 27 times as much fish as Washington. But there’s been pushback here from big employers who create industrial waste, including Boeing. The Department of Ecology says these stakeholders are concerned they could be crippled by new regulations. And that’s why negotiations came to a sudden halt last summer.

The story of how that happened is detailed in a series of in-depth reports by InvestigateWest, which used public records requests to document just how influential industries, and in particular Boeing, have been on this rulemaking process.

Cladoosby says tribes have been working hard on the issue for at least the past 8 years. Eating fish that has absorbed toxins is linked to higher rates of cancer and neurological damage, so tribal members are especially vulnerable. But they also want those who don't consume as much fish to remember what’s at stake.

“This is a pollution issue. It’s probably safe to say there is no one in the state of Washington that wants dirty water,” Cladoosby said. “This is an issue of pollution and how much pollution Puget Sound can continue to sustain.”

He says the tribes, in an effort to get the process back on track, pushed for a meeting with the EPA. State Ecology officials attended as well.

Spokeswoman Sandy Howard says ecology has acknowledged that the standard is decades old and needs updating.

"We feel the water quality standards are not up to date for toxics. And we need to update them. We know people are eating more fish and shellfish than we are basing this on," Howard said.

But Howard says coming to an agreement has been very difficult because they have to take the concerns of industry into consideration.

"Industries in our state will be faced with very challenging pollution limits. And right now some industries think the limits may be even impossible," she said. 

Howard says the Department of Ecology is working on tools to help with compliance, which likely means phasing in the new regulations over several years.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to