Fish Consumption Rate Needs Updating

Shawn Yanity

It's a lot easier and less expensive to prevent toxins such as flame retardants, pesticides and mercury from getting into our waters than it is to try and clean them up after the fact. That's the idea behind the state of Washington's plan to update fish consumption rates.

Fish consumption rates are used as a regulatory tool to ensure our fish and shellfish are safe to eat. This rate is supposed to be an estimate of the amount of fish and shellfish people eat. The rate is used to set standards for water quality and cleanup of contaminated sites. Health officials say that fish and shellfish are important parts of a healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish or shellfish twice per week.

However, Washington is one of nine states with the lowest fish consumption rate in the country, even though our residents are among the biggest consumers of fish. The current fish consumption rate of about eight ounces per month was developed decades ago, is no longer accurate and does not adequately protect public health. That is why the state is considering increasing the rate to be more reflective of just how much fish and shellfish we all are eating. The new consumption standard will help reduce levels of more than 100 pollutants that can hurt human health.

Many Washington residents, including treaty Indian tribes, believe that we should be limiting pollution, not the amount of fish and shellfish that we eat. Oregon recently raised its fish consumption rate to about 12 pounds a month, which is the most protective rate in the country. Washingtonians deserve at least the same protection.

Although it is difficult to argue against protecting our fish, shellfish and public health, opponents challenge the dietary studies behind the fish consumption rate in Oregon and the similar rate proposed for Washington. But those studies were designed in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, state and federal health agencies, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The studies were then peer-reviewed by a panel of highly qualified independent scientists in public health and toxicology.

Those opposed to clean water and protecting human health also claim that we can't afford to raise the fish consumption rate. They say that new rules will lead to everything from lost jobs to higher sewer rates at a time when our economy is struggling. The sad truth is that we all have been paying for our unrealistically low fish consumption rate for many years. We've been paying for it with the quality of our water, our food and our health.

Washingtonians eat a lot more fish and shellfish than most people in the country. If those resources were healthier and more plentiful, we would all eat more. We need to stop debating about how much fish and shellfish we eat, and get on with the important business of protecting our water, our resources and the public's health.

Shawn Yanity is chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians.