By Billy Frank, Jr., Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
OLYMPIA – It was the mid-1980s, and Roy dairy farmer Jim Wilcox was worried.
As an owner of Wilcox Family Farms, one of the largest dairy producers in western Washington at the time, he was concerned how his business would be affected by the activities of a new group called the Nisqually River Task Force. I was part of that task force of tribal, state, federal and local governments, businesses and others charged with developing a management plan for the Nisqually River watershed. The aim of the plan was balanced stewardship of the watershed’s economic, natural and cultural resources.
Fearing that possible environmental regulations in such a plan could put his family farm on the Nisqually River out of business, Wilcox quickly joined the task force to protect his interests. But before that, he teamed up with other large landowners in the watershed – including Weyerhaeuser – to try and shoot down any plan that might be developed.
But those fears melted one day when the task force was touring the watershed and our bus broke down. Waiting for help, Jim and I started talking. I told him that we wanted him to stay in business, but that we needed to protect salmon as well, and that if we worked together, we could come up with a solution.
He agreed to try. Today, Wilcox Family Farms is still in business and the Nisqually River watershed is one of the healthiest in the state. It’s a model of how a watershed can be managed for the benefit of everyone.
About that same time, a war was raging in the woods of Washington. Timber companies, environmental groups, tribes, state and federal agencies, and others were battling each other in court over the effects of timber harvests on fish and wildlife. I asked Stu Bledsoe, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a forest products industry trade group, to see if his members would be willing to join a cooperative effort to develop a solution for everyone involved.
He agreed to try. After many months of negotiations by all of the parties involved, the result was the Timber/Fish/Wildlife Agreement – now called the Forests and Fish Law – which put an end to the war in the woods with a cooperative science-based management approach that ensures a healthy timber industry while also protecting fish and wildlife.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today with the state’s extremely low fish consumption rate that is used to regulate pollution in our waters. The lower the rate, the higher the level of pollutants allowed.
Washington has one of the highest populations of seafood consumers, but uses one of the lowest fish consumption rates in the country to control water pollution. State government is quick to admit that the current rate of 6.5 grams of seafood per day – about one 8-ounce serving a month – does not protect most Washington citizens from toxins in our waters that can cause illness or death.
That fact is especially true for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, as well as recreational fishermen and others who eat more seafood than most. For us tribes, fish and shellfish have always been basis of our cultures. Our treaty-reserved harvest rights depend on those resources being safe to eat.
Oregon recently increased its fish consumption rate to 175 grams per day, the most protective rate in the U.S. We think everyone in Washington deserves at least that level of protection.
Sadly, the effort to adopt a more accurate fish consumption rate has become one of the biggest public policy battles in the country, pitting human health against the economy. Some industry leaders such as Boeing are digging in their heels to delay or kill rule-making on a more accurate rate because they say it will increase their cost of doing business.
To find a solution, Gov. Jay Inslee has put together an informal advisory group of tribes, local governments, businesses, environmental organizations and others to help resolve the issue. That group met for the first time recently, and although Boeing was invited, the company chose not to participate.
That’s too bad, because I would have told them that we don’t want Boeing to leave the state or go out of business. We want them to keep making planes here in western Washington, but at the same time we have to protect the health of everyone who lives here by adopting a more realistic fish consumption rate. I also would have told them about Jim Wilcox and Stu Bledsoe and the many great things that can be accomplished when we sit down together to solve a shared problem.