By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Hood Canal/Eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca summer chum is the only threatened salmon population in western Washington showing clear signs of recovery.
It’s thanks to a 20-year cooperative effort by state and tribal salmon co-managers, conservation groups, local governments and federal agencies that is balancing the key ingredients needed for recovery: harvest, hatcheries and habitat.
Summer chum were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 along with Puget Sound chinook and Lake Ozette sockeye. Puget Sound steelhead joined the list in 2007.
The program’s success comes from a core principle that salmon recovery must address all factors affecting natural production. For far too long the federal government’s main response to protect ESA-listed salmon has been to cut harvest. Meanwhile, the primary threat to wild salmon and their recovery – ongoing loss and damage of their habitat – continues to be ignored.
Past overharvest and poor ocean conditions combined with degraded habitat to spark the steep decline of summer chum that began in Hood Canal streams in the late ’70s. By the early 1990s, fewer than a thousand summer chum were returning from a population that once numbered 70,000 or more.
The tribal and state co-managers responded with strong harvest management actions beginning in 1992. Fisheries impacting summer chum were reduced, relocated and delayed to protect the returning fish.
But it didn’t stop there. Working with federal agencies and conservation groups, tribal and state salmon co-managers began hatchery supplementation programs to boost populations of summer chum.
A portion of the wild run returning to the Big Quilcene River was moved to a federal fish hatchery and spawned, with the offspring released to rebuild the remaining run. Four years later, about 10,000 adult summer chum returned to the river.
Since then, additional hatchery supplementation efforts have led to summer chum becoming re-established in most of its historic range. To protect summer chum genetics, supplementation programs were limited to three generations, or 12 years. Some programs met their goals and were ended earlier.
Habitat protection and restoration was the third key to bringing back summer chum. Projects such as dike removals, protecting and restoring instream habitat, planting streamside trees and removing invasive plants have all contributed to the effort’s success. Nearly 700 acres of estuary and an equal amount of upland stream habitat have been improved to support the recovery effort.
More work is planned and ongoing in streams, estuaries, and the nearshore throughout the area
Balancing harvest, hatcheries and habitat is the key to salmon recovery. Equally as important is the need for monitoring and evaluation to apply lessons learned and improve effectiveness.
Cooperation is the third essential ingredient. Only by working together can we hope to meet the challenges of salmon recovery. If we are ever going to recover Puget Sound chinook and steelhead, we will need to use the same approach we are using to save Hood Canal summer chum.
Despite the best efforts of fisheries managers to restore summer chum, they remain vulnerable to climate change and ongoing development. Because they arrive in streams to spawn during the late summer months, they are especially threatened by low flows like those we are seeing during this year’s record-breaking drought, which is far from over.
Ongoing loss of habitat and a number of other factors still must be fully addressed before summer chum can be removed from the ESA list. There’s still a ways to go, but at least we are on the right path.
How will we know when we have recovered summer chum? When they are once again abundant enough to support sustainable harvest. To the tribes, that is the true measure of salmon recovery and the commitment to fulfill the promises of the treaties we signed with the U.S. government.
Lummi Nation, which has fished the waters off Cherry Point for centuries, and Crow Nation, a tribe in Montana sitting on billions of tons of coal, have taken opposite stances on a proposed coal terminal on the Lummis’ historic fishing grounds.
Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 20, asking the federal agency to bring the two tribes together to discuss Gateway Pacific Terminal. The Crow letter was in response to request on Jan. 5 from Lummi Nation to the Corps, asking the agency to reject the terminal because it interfered with the Lummis’ ancient fishing practices, which were reinforced in U.S. law by an 1855 treaty.
The terminal is currently under environmental review.
“We are concerned about recent news reports that Lummi is asking the (Corps) to stop the environmental review process based on perceived impacts to their treaty fishing rights,” Old Coyote wrote.
In its response, dated March 10, the Corps said it would not organize meetings between the tribes. The agency suggested the Crow ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“The Corps wouldn’t be the appropriate agency to facilitate such a meeting,” Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said on Friday, March 20, in an email to The Bellingham Herald.
Leaders at Crow Nation were not available for comment on Friday.
The Corps said it would meet a different request from the Crow, to keep the tribe informed about the Corps’ review of Gateway Pacific Terminal and to include in that review, when appropriate, the Montana tribe’s position.
What’s at stake for Crow Nation is the 2013 agreement between the tribe and Cloud Peak Energy that would allow the mining company to extract 1.4 billion tons of coal from Crow land. The deal has already enriched the Crow by at least $3.75 million and would be worth millions of dollars more, depending on the amount of coal mined.
That, in turn, could depend on whether Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. Coal that would pass through the Cherry Point terminal would come from Montana and Wyoming.
“The Gateway Pacific Terminal project will ensure access to markets for Crow coal,” the tribal chairman’s letter said. Old Coyote has said in media reports that two-thirds of the Crow’s budget comes from coal revenue.
The Lummis have hosted the Crow at Cherry Point and have told the Montana tribe about the anticipated disruptions to Puget Sound fishing areas, Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew said.
“We’ve done extensive fact finding with other governments, including the federal government and other tribes,” Ballew said in an interview on Thursday, March 19. “We’ve come to the decision that our treaty right cannot be mitigated.”
“We have an explicit treaty fishing right that the Corps needs to respond to,” Ballew added. “That letter and request from the Crow is not a setback.”
The Lummis on March 5 sent the Corps details about the tribe’s fishing practices in response to a request from the Corps for more information, to support the tribe’s Jan. 5 request that the coal terminal be stopped. Ballew said Thursday the tribe had not yet heard back from the Corps.
Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2015/03/23/4197844_pro-coal-montana-tribe-weighs.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy
OLYMPIC PENINSULA — Many eyes have been on the Quinault Indian Nation as it tests technology that could help dramatically improve rule enforcement in Washington’s $62 million commercial crab fishery.
Three Quinault fishermen have been using an electronic crab pot monitoring system to track gear use. This entails placing quarter-coin-sized radio frequency tags in their crab pot buoys over the summer and since November. As the pots were pulled aboard, they scanned the buoys in front of a sensor: “Basically like you’re scanning groceries at the store,” said Quinault fisherman Pete Wilson, who was one of the three participants in the pilot program. The sensor transmitted the identification number and the GPS location to a computer.
With every pot registered to only one owner, fishery managers hope this will be a simple way to track boat activity and gear use.
“It would solve some pretty significant issues we face in the crab fishery,” said Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish lead biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As things stand currently, both tribal and non-tribal commercial crab fishermen looking to cheat the system and steal gear and crab can, for the most part, get away with it. Fishermen work at night and “guys that have no scruples come along and fish other guys’ gear,” Ayres said. “Unless someone is right there in the middle of the night and knows what’s going on, it’s almost impossible for us to make a case. …Because fishermen know we can’t do anything about it, they don’t necessarily report [incidents] to us.”
WDFW enforcement officers will hear about stolen gear from time to time, but the traps are in the ocean and the ocean is never still. Besides, whales tangle in pots, debris snags them, storms move them.
The Quinault Indian Nation is working with the non-profit EcoTrust Canada to process the data it collected. The pilot program ended in January. No final report or numbers have been made public yet though Joe Schumacker, QIN marine scientist, expects a report in March.
“If it works well, we’re hoping to have it on all fishing boats in the future and would love to see it used by the non-tribal fishermen as well,” Schumacker in an article in the Winter 2014/15 Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission News.
In an phone interview, he said it is something he has been pushing for the last decade. It is something fisheries in British Columbia have utilized and recently the idea seems to be gaining traction in the states, Schumacker said.
“I don’t think it’s all the way there,” Wilson said about the equipment in a phone interview Feb. 3. But he thinks it’s close.
“I’d say 90 percent of our guys are probably going to want this implemented,” he said. “There are one or two who’d probably prefer that it would not, for their own personal reasons.”
But he and the others don’t have anything to hide.
“I think it can only help,” he said.
For fishery managers like WDFW, the technology would mean wading through massive amounts of data, something they don’t currently have the staff for, Ayres said. And there is a daunting cost to fishermen.
“If it wasn’t slightly over $10,000, it would certainly eat up most of it,” Wilson said regarding the expense per boat.
Schumacker didn’t have a cost estimate yet, but said it would have to be well under $10,000 to be affordable to fishermen.
Cost is one reason that WDFW has yet to implement similar monitoring though it has examined the possibility before. With that kind of price tag, it’s a hard sell, Ayres said.
The benefit of the monitoring would primarily go to those in the industry, but since they would also have to bear the bulk of the cost, the technology won’t become mainstream unless the fishermen support it.
Still, Ayres said, “it’s something that’s slowly becoming more common in other situations in other states.”
In theory, as it gains traction elsewhere and becomes standard: “It gets better and slowly gets cheaper.”
But he thinks the department will see more support as younger, more tech-savvy fishermen enter the fleet.
“We’ve got fishermen who still don’t have answering machines and, God forbid, a cell phone or an e-mail address,” he said.
Even now, they are only just beginning to look at requiring an electronic log book instead of paper log books fishermen currently maintain.
Lummi Nation sent a letter on Monday, Jan. 5, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the agency to immediately reject a permit application for a coal terminal at Cherry Point because it would interfere with tribal fishing grounds.
An environmental group in Bellingham called the action “historic.”
Lummi Nation cited its rights under a treaty with the United States to fish in its “usual and accustomed” areas, which include the waters around Cherry Point. A court decision in 2000 clarified the Lummi fishing territory, first established in 1855, to include northern Puget Sound from the Fraser River to Seattle, with the exception of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Hood Canal.
“The Lummi have harvested at this location since time immemorial and plan to continue into the future,” said the Lummi letter, signed by Chairman Tim Ballew. “The proposed project will impact this significant treaty harvesting location and will significantly limit the ability of tribal members to exercise their treaty rights.”
The letter was authorized by the Lummi Indian Business Council on Wednesday, Dec. 31.
A manager at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham said in a message to members that the Lummis had made “an historic announcement.”
“This is a critical development in the fight to block the Cherry Point coal terminal,” wrote Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager at RE Sources.
Past case law suggests Gateway Pacific Terminal could be in trouble. The corps rejected a permit in 1992 for a salmon farm in Rosario Strait on the grounds that the farm, though no larger on the surface than 1.41 acres, would interfere with Lummi fishing. The decision withstood a challenge in U.S. District Court.
“There’s a precedent for a threshold of impact on treaty rights,” Ballew said. “I trust that the Corps will uphold its constitutional responsibility.”
Officials for Gateway Pacific Terminal said they could not comment before the deadline for this story.
The coal terminal, if approved by federal and state agencies, and Whatcom County, would ship up to 48 million metric tons of coal annually to Asian ports, starting as early as 2019.
While environmentalists who have actively opposed the coal terminal for years celebrated, they didn’t declare victory.
“One of the things I’m sure of is that the Corps will respond to the gravity of this statement,” said Crina Hoyer, RE Sources’ executive director. “What the ultimate end result will be, it may be decided in the court.”
Corps officials said they will review the 97-page document submitted to them on Monday by the tribe. If the Corps finds that treaty-protected fishing would be disrupted to any significant degree, it will pass the information along to project applicant SSA Marine of Seattle for review.
“We generally ask the applicant to coordinate with the relevant tribes and to resolve the issue,” the Corps said in a statement on Monday.
Lummi Nation consistently has opposed the coal terminal publicly. Tribal members in 2012 burned a symbolic check representing a presumed buy-out from the coal industry. Last year, the tribe toured the western U.S. and Canada with a totem pole to raise awareness of their opposition to fossil-fuel transport. The tribe also has criticized Gateway Pacific Terminal in written comments to permitting agencies.
“This is the strongest statement that we’ve seen from the Lummi Nation,” Hoyer said.
A report released last month provided preliminary evidence that the terminal would impede tribal fishing. The vessel traffic study, developed by SSA Marine and Lummi Nation with oversight by the state Department of Ecology, indicated that cargo ships and other traffic for Gateway Pacific Terminal would increase the number of vessels in north Puget Sound by 15 percent. Vessel traffic in the vicinity of Cherry Point would increase 33 percent. The risk of oil spills also would increase.
Those results, released on Dec. 18, were not taken to be final. Ecology officials emphasized that further study of vessel traffic would be included in a draft of the environmental impact statement on the coal terminal, expected in early 2016.
Even so, the Lummis mentioned the vessel traffic study in their letter to the Corps.
“Review of the impacts associated with this project, including … (the vessel traffic study) lead to the inescapable conclusion that the proposed project will directly result in the substantial impairment of the treaty rights of the Lummi Nation,” the letter said.
Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2015/01/05/4061757_lummi-nation-asks-army-corps-to.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy
For decades the Army Corps of Engineers used an island near the Bonneville Dam as a dumping ground. Toxic chemicals leaked into the Columbia River. The island is also a historic fishing site for the Yakama Nation.
The tribe is now suing the Corps to recover costs from helping clean up the contamination.
In 2003, the Corps removed electrical equipment and contaminated sediment found at the bottom of the river. In 2007, it dredged the area to remove more contaminated soil.
Tests show toxic materials like PCBs, which were banned in the 1970s, are still found in resident fish – even after the Corps finished cleaning up Bradford Island. The Yakama Nation says the PCB counts in resident fish are higher now than before the cleanup. No one is really sure why, but it’s possibly because of the way the sediment was disturbed.
Rose Longoria, the superfund coordinator with the Yakama Nation, said the tribe was not reimbursed for its efforts to help cleanup the site. The tribe is asking for about $93,000, although that number could change.
“More importantly, we want to make sure that we have a very definitive role in the decision making process so that we can ensure that the cleanup actually is protective not only the resident fish but all the resources in that area,” Longoria said.
The Corps is looking at several options to continue cleaning up the island. A feasibility study is expected to be completed in 2015.
A Corps spokeswoman said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
A map of PCB fish concentrations in Washington.
Longoria said the Bradford Island cleanup is one of Yakama Nation’s top priorities, simply because of the level of contamination in the fish — and high counts of PCBs of other animals in the area, like osprey that eat small-mouth bass in the contaminated area.
Oregon and Washington have issued a do-not-eat fish consumption advisory for resident fish one mile upstream of Bonneville Dam. Migratory fish like salmon are still okay to eat.
“The PCBs in that resident fish tissue are a magnitude higher than PCBs in fish tissue in other locations,” Longoria said. “It’s rather astonishing how contaminated those fish are.”
The Makah Nation’s new commercial fishing dock is 120 feet long, has two lanes, five offloading terminals, and an ice machine capable of holding 110 tons of ice, and is designed to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and a 15-foot tsunami wave.
“It’s going to be a huge plus to have all the catch come in at one dock,” dock manager Michael Lawrence said on the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission website. “We’ve invited a flotilla of boats to tie up at the new facility as part of the celebration.”
The Makah Nation celebrated the opening of the $3.8 million dock with a blessing and ribbon cutting on October 10. The old dock had become unstable, and the Nation expedited its replacement – obtaining permits, demolishing the old dock and completing the new dock in less than a year.
“It is estimated more than 50 percent of the Makah Nation relies on income from fishing in some way and the dock construction has meant not only some jobs during construction, but a lasting improvement to the community that will pay for itself rapidly,” the NWIFC website reported.
Makah contributed $10.5 million toward the project.
A $1.1 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant will assist with the second phase of the project: an oil spill prevention and response dock that will extend beyond the current structure. Emergency response is critical in this area, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean.
Every year, oil tankers, fuel barges and large commercial cargo, fish-processing and passenger vessels make about 3,000 transits into the Strait bound for Washington ports. From 1999-2014, an emergency tug stationed at Neah Bay assisted 49 ships either completely disabled or with reduced maneuvering ability.
Having a specific structure for the oil spill response vessels, including the emergency tug, will allow all the response vessels to be located in one place and will expedite their deployment, NWIFC reported. A crane on the completed dock is already allocated for industrial lifting to assist in oil spill equipment deployment.
“The crane can lift 10 tons and it was mostly with oil spill response in mind,” Lawrence said.
EVERETT, Wash. – People fishing without a license or other minor fishing violations are not being prosecuted in Snohomish County.
The Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office has told wildlife officers it will no longer prosecute second degree recreational fishing crimes.
That includes violations such as fishing in closed areas, violating limits, illegally hooking, failure to record catches, etc…
Everett Fishing Store owner John Martinis reviewed dozens of cases rejected by the Prosecutor’s Office and said it’s a decision that can lead to serious problems for salmon and crab.
He said the word is out that you don’t need a license to fish in Snohomish County and that will eventually force the end of some fishing seasons.
“We don’t have any fish to waste,” said Martinis, who owns John’s Sporting Goods.
Prosecutors said the decision was made because the State legislature decriminalized minor fishing violations. They said instead of prosecuting misdemeanor crimes, they requested Fish & Wildlife officers write infractions that carry fines but no criminal prosecution.
They also point out their office prosecutes 90 percent of wildlife crimes other than second degree fishing.
State Fish & Wildlife officers report they investigate dozens on second degree fishing crimes during busy fishing days.
WASHINGTON—Rep. Rick Larsen, WA-02, continued to fight to protect Bristol Bay and Washington state’s fishing industry today by opposing a bill that would restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to use the Clean Water Act to prevent environmentally harmful projects from going forward.
The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee considered H.R. 4854, the Regulatory Certainty Act, which would impact EPA’s ability to act on its determination that the Pebble Mine would threaten the health of Bristol Bay in Alaska.
Larsen urged his colleagues to vote against the bill, though the committee passed the bill by a vote of 33-22.
“Thousands of Washington fishers and processors depend on this vibrant fishery. This year alone, fishers have caught more than 27 million sockeye and the season is still going strong.
“Many of the fishers in these waters are small business owners who rely on this vital natural resource to make a living. These small businesses add up to major economic impact in Washington state, where the Bristol Bay Fishery supports 73,000 jobs.
“Our small business owners should not have to fish under the shadow of having their livelihoods wiped out by a mine that science has told us could have devastating impacts.
It has become an all-too-familiar story: Pristine waters. Salmon habitat. Sacred significance. Mining.
The Unuk River watershed, straddling the border between British Columbia and Alaska, is on track to become ground zero in a struggle to stop the world’s largest open-pit mine, Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM). The fight against it is uniting First Nations and Alaska Natives as they battle to preserve stewardship of the pristine region. And it is just one of five massive projects proposed for the region.
If KSM secures the financing and the regulatory go-ahead, the giant mine would turn 6,500 acres of pristine land into an industrial zone that would generate more than 10 billion pounds of copper and 38 million ounces of gold, according to a project summary. As with any large mine, it would employ a hefty workforce—in this case mostly Canadians—and create taxes and royalty payments for Canada. But it would also produce a slew of waste. And that’s what critics say downstream Alaska communities stand to take on: none of the economic benefits but much of the environmental risk.
With its remote headwaters in British Columbia, the Unuk River is one of the world’s most prolific salmon waters. An international river, the Unuk flows into neighboring Southeast Alaska and its temperate rainforest, the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, a place of towering coastal mountains, tidewater glaciers and fog-shrouded islands. The Unuk empties into Misty Fjords National Monument, an attraction for cruise ship passengers viewing glaciers, bears and whales that dot Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Unuk, known as Joonáx̱ in Tlingit, supports large runs of king salmon, a cultural icon prized by commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen alike.
“The consequences for salmon runs on both sides of the border could be devastating, yet Alaskans would see none of the economic benefit,” wrote National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Michael Fay in a 2011 letter to British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, signed by nearly 40 other scientists.
Seabridge Gold, the mine developer, expects KSM to generate more than two billion tons of acidic waste rock called tailings, a byproduct of the mining process than can be lethal to fish. The tailings would be held behind two huge dams—each taller than the Hoover dam—built in the headwaters of the Nass River, one of British Columbia’s most important salmon rivers.
Because KSM is located in sensitive fish habitat, it has raised the ire of Southeast Alaska tribes, fishermen and some Canadian First Nations. They joined forces in early April, forming a cross-border working group to develop a unified strategy to protect their interests.
It’s not just KSM that worries them. KSM is one of more than a dozen mines planned for northern B.C., including five located in salmon-bearing watersheds that arise in Canada and drain into Alaska. The British Columbia government is encouraging the mines’ development, offering tax breaks and relaxed environmental rules. Also spurring development is the construction of a new power line extending electricity into the northwest corner of the province, bordering Alaska. The transboundary projects include Red Chris, Schaft Creek, Galore Creek and Tulsequah Chief. The international rivers they could affect are the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, some of Southeast Alaska’s top salmon rivers.
“These projects could not be in a worse location. Salmon is our traditional food. If anything happens to them, we would be in a world of hurt,” said Ketchikan fisherman and tribal leader Rob Sanderson Jr.
Fishing, seafood processing and tourism are key economic drivers in Southeast Alaska. The seafood industry produced $641 million worth of fish in 2011, which created 17,500 jobs and $468 million in wages. A million visitors tour the area every year, spending about copy billion.
Tribes have passed numerous resolutions of concern about how KSM and the other transboundary mines could potentially contaminate the region, including their traditional fishing grounds. Recently a delegation of tribal leaders and fishermen flew to Washington, D.C. to lobby for State Department intervention. They delivered a letter signed by 40 businesses, groups and individuals asking for help.
Alaska’s congressional delegation got the message. Shortly after the Alaskans flew home, Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, along with Congressman Don Young, contacted the office of Secretary of State John Kerry by letter asking him to get involved to protect Alaska’s interests. Because the mines are located in Canada, Alaska tribes feel they have less influence over the outcome than if they were on U.S. soil.
“It’s happening in a foreign country. We don’t have a lot of control over it,” said Sanderson. “They don’t even have to consult with Alaska tribes.”
The U.S. Environmental Protect Agency has raised issues regarding the KSM project, mirroring the tribes’ concerns. The U.S Interior Department has urged Seabridge Gold to consult with Alaska tribes regarding fishing and clean water.
Recently Seabridge sent its vice president for environmental affairs to Alaska to participate in a tribal meeting on Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan regarding KSM. Seabridge’s Brent Murphy told the Juneau Empire that “the overwhelming design philosophy for the KSM project is the protection of downstream environments and that is ensuring protection also for Alaskans.”
On its website, Seabridge notes that KSM has undergone extensive review by environmental and technical experts over the past five years to see that salmon and other wild resources are protected.
But Seabridge’s assurances have done little to allay skepticism on the U.S. side. Since the meeting on Prince of Wales in late March, the newly elected president of Alaska’s largest tribe, the Juneau-based Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, has elevated the matter.
“This is a direct threat to the lifestyle and culture of our tribes’ 29,000-plus members,” said Richard Peterson, tribal president.
At Peterson’s urging, the Central Council adopted a resolution giving Southeast Alaska’s 19 federally recognized tribes the green light to work with First Nations to try to slow the development of the transboundary mines.
“We need a collective call to arms,” said Peterson.
Not all B.C. First Nations oppose the KSM mine or the other transboundary projects. The Gitxsan and Nisga’a Nations support the mine’s development. But others, including the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, who live downstream from where the KSM waste facility would be located, are opposed.
“Nass River fish are critical for the food security of the Gitanyow,” said Kevin Koch, a fish and wildlife biologist with Gitanyow Fisheries Authority. “KSM poses a major threat to the Gitanyow way of life.”
Koch noted that the Gitanyow have constitutionally protected aboriginal rights to fish in the Nass. Seabridge maintains that any ill effects from mine waste on Nass River salmon would be minimal.
Peterson is unconvinced.
“I think John Kerry should be sitting in my office talking to me right now,” he said. “We need face-to-face consultation on this. We’re a sovereign nation.”
OLYMPIA — How much risk of cancer from eating fish is too much? Gov. Jay Inslee has privately advanced a proposal that would likely pass legal muster but which worries Indian tribes and environmentalists. It would allow a tenfold increase in allowable cancer risk under the law.
It’s either that, the governor has told a panel of his advisers, or the state will have to consider regulatory breaks for polluters that the state has not traditionally granted in the past.
For example: giving factories, municipal sewage treatment plants and others who dump pollution into waterways 20 years or perhaps even more to come into compliance with new toxic-waste limits.
Caught in crossfire between Indian tribes and business interests, Inslee stepped into the controversy last spring after his predecessor, Chris Gregoire, short-circuited plans by the state Ecology Department to make water pollution rules more protective of people who eat a lot of fish. Gregoire’s move came a day after the former governor met with a senior Boeing Co. executive who strongly objected to tighter restrictions on toxic pollution, as InvestigateWest was the first to report.
Inslee’s first step was to organize a panel of advisers, including business and tribal officials. It was in front of that group in February that the governor laid out the choices as he saw them, according to several people who attended the meeting.
Now Inslee is on the verge of handing down orders to the state Ecology Department on how to proceed. It’s a decision fraught with political tension because Inslee has allies in the tribes and in business.
“The governor came into this issue, inherited it, hearing both that this is going to kill business and hearing this is necessary to protect Washington citizens who are heavy fish consumers,” said Ted Sturdevant, who first pushed the tighter limits as director of Ecology and is now Inslee’s chief adviser on the issue. “He’s been looking for a path that does both — that protects people who eat a lot of fish and that doesn’t kill the economy.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly told Washington that the state must fix its system for regulating water pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.
What needs fixing is the fish consumption rate: an official state estimate of how much fish people eat and a key part of Washington’s formula for deciding how much pollution is allowed. The more fish people consume, the more exposure they face to water-borne pollutants, and the less pollution can be discharged into waterways under the Clean Water Act.
The fish-consumption estimate Washington uses is based on a national study conducted in 1973 and 1974 in which people filled out three-day food diaries. According to that study, and in the current state calculations, Washingtonians eat less than half a pound of fish per month, about one serving. In reality, many eat more in a single meal. Starting in the 1990s, more-rigorous studies of Northwest Indian tribes found fish consumption rates of 30 pounds per month or more among the highest consumers in the Suquamish Tribe, for example, where even the average consumer eats 14 pounds a month. Other groups, such as sport fishers and immigrant communities, are also known to eat fish in excess of the state estimate.
Critics of Washington’s one-meal-per-month figure point to Oregon, which in 2011 adjusted its rate to 11 pounds per month, or roughly one fish meal per day, making it the strictest standard in the nation. That move was designed to protect 90 percent of people eating fish in the state to a one-in-1-million standard of increased lifetime risk of cancer.
Following Oregon’s lead, Sturdevant as director of Ecology in 2011 began a process to correct Washington’s fish-consumption estimate. Vigorous protests from business and influential members of the state Legislature failed to stop the rulemaking process by spring 2012. But when Boeing took its complaint all the way to the governor, Gregoire told Ecology to go back to the drawing board.
Tribes protested. After his election, Inslee personally stepped into the controversy, tapping a panel of prominent business, tribal and municipal officials to try to reach agreement on a path forward.
Businesses and local governments rightly point out that wastewater technology is not currently available to meet the strict water-quality standards that would result if Washington adopts a fish consumption rate as high as Oregon’s.
To environmentalists and Indian tribes, that’s not the point. They rightly point out that the Clean Water Act has often required industry and others under its regulation to set a standard to protect public health and rely on that standard to drive technological innovation. That way, at least eventually, even heavy fish consumers are protected, they argue.
At a meeting at the governor’s office in early February, according to several of those who attended, the governor laid out two options, both of which lessen the potential burden on polluters:
Boost the estimate of how much fish Washingtonians are eating, but alter another pivotal part of the formula used to set pollution limits: the additional cancer risk from eating fish that is considered acceptable. Traditionally, Ecology has set that at one additional cancer case for every 1 million people exposed to a given pollutant. That number could be set at one in 100,000 instead, Inslee suggested, and remain within legal bounds. EPA allows states to set the risk at either level, so long as even highly exposed groups such as Indian tribes face risks no greater than one additional cancer case from eating fish per 10,000 people.
Keep the traditional limit of one-in-1-million increased cancer risk, but take steps to help pollution dischargers. This could include giving them variances from the rules; allowing them years or even decades to reduce pollution; or other alternatives. Similar polluter-friendly steps were taken in Oregon but traditionally have not been used in Washington. This second option, Inslee adviser Sturdevant told InvestigateWest, would have to be paired with “creative solutions” that would further protect fish eaters, although such solutions have not yet been outlined.
The EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10 oversees the Ecology Department’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran refused to grant an interview to discuss EPA’s position or provide another spokesman for the agency.
But recently the agency repeated its position in a letter to the Washington Ecology Department, saying an “important part of a final rule is choosing a cancer risk level that provides risk protection for all Washington citizens, including those who eat higher amounts of fish.” If the state doesn’t come up with a rule by the end of the year, EPA plans to step in and do the job itself, the letter said. The suit the environmental groups filed in federal court seeks to force such action by EPA.
Meanwhile, a coalition of business interests, local governments and a labor organization endorsed increasing the allowable cancer risk. Expecting a one-in-1-million increased cancer risk is “unacceptable,” the group wrote in a letter to Inslee.
“We anticipate that this risk level, coupled with a high fish consumption rate, will result in largely unattainable ultra-low numeric criteria, unmeasureable incremental health benefits, and predictable economic turmoil,” the group said.
One signer was Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, who served on Inslee’s panel of advisers and attended the meetings where the governor discussed the issue. She told InvestigateWest even the one-in-100,000 cancer rate would lead to significantly tightened water-pollution standards.
By adopting that goal, she said, “you can get industry to invest in ways that will move the needle for human health.”
Business and local governments argue, too, that they are unfairly targeted by the Clean Water Act. Pollution from factories and sewage plants has already been ratcheted down substantially since the landmark legislation was adopted in 1972. Nowadays, quite a bit of pollution flowing into Washington waterways comes not from a sewage plant or factory, but rather from the foul mix that flows off streets, parking lots and other hard surfaces during rainstorms, carrying the detritus of our modern world, including three pollutants that have proved particularly difficult to clean up: PCBs, arsenic and mercury.
Tribal interests, nevertheless, are growing impatient with the Ecology Department’s drawn-out process.
“It’s really concerning to me,” said Jim Peters of the Squaxin Island Tribe. “It seems like they have no problem having heavy fish consumers have a higher risk of getting cancer than other people.
“It’s just not something we can accept. Tribal members and my family do eat a lot of fish. It’s part of our lives and part of our culture and a staple of our diets. And we’d probably eat more fish if there were more around.”
Although Inslee has not yet said publicly how he will resolve the dispute, those involved in the discussions say it seems likely that he will find a way to allow polluters leeway on PCBs, mercury and arsenic. What form that might take remains unclear.
Kelly Susewind, a key adviser to Ecology Director Maia Bellon, argues that one case per 100,000 people “is very, very close to zero” cases, although he acknowledges that one in 1 million “is even closer” to zero.
He said the agency should be given credit for not simply focusing on protecting the average person.
“We’re saying let’s set a number that’s right for high consumers,” Susewind said.
One thing to consider is that the measure of increased cancer risk is based on 70 years of exposure to a given pollutant. Also keep in mind that Washington’s population is about 6.9 million people. So if the allowable cancer rate were to be set at one in 100,000 people instead of one in 1 million people, the difference would be roughly 62 extra cases of cancer over 70 years — if the assumptions are right. It could be more or it could be fewer.
One of Inslee’s advisers is Seattle attorney Rod Brown.
“What’s your social judgment about how much risk is acceptable for a carcinogen?” Brown asks. “It sounds like math, but it’s also a social judgment.”
InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based non-profit journalism organization focused on the environment, public health and government accountability in the Pacific Northwest.