With the Pacific Ocean for one border and the Columbia River for another, it’s no surprise that fish is a regular part of many Washington residents’ diets.
But when it comes to setting water quality standards to protect fish eaters, the state has been using outdated data.
Washington’s estimate for fish consumption is one 8-ounce fillet per person per month, despite studies that reveal much higher rates for American Indians, people of Asian heritage and recreational fishermen and fisherwomen.
On Wednesday, the Washington Department of Ecology unveiled several proposals for updating the rates. The proposals are intended to reduce cancer risks and exposure to toxins for people who eat lots of fish and shellfish, said Kelly Susewind, manager of the department’s water quality program.
The highest consumption rate being considered is a daily 8-ounce fish meal. It’s based on high levels of fish and other seafood in the diets of members of Puget Sound’s Suquamish Tribe and some people who fish recreationally. The state is also considering Oregon’s standard, equivalent to about 24 8-ounce fillets per month, and another standard of 16 fillets monthly.
Fish is rich in healthy omega oils, but eating fish also exposes people to mercury, lead, arsenic, PCBs and other toxins. Increasing the state’s fish consumption rates will tighten pollution standards for industries that discharge into lakes, rivers and bays.
The standards under consideration would require reducing pollution discharges by 50 percent to 97 percent, Susewind said during a Wednesday meeting.
“The more fish you eat, the cleaner the water has to be,” he said. “We know that some of those standards will take a long time to achieve … We know that people can’t meet those levels today.”
Earlier efforts to update Washington’s fish consumption rates were hampered by opposition from aerospace giant Boeing and the pulp and paper industry. Last month, environmental groups and commercial fishing interests sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charging that EPA has let the state dither too long over updating the standards.
In response to questions, Susewind said Gov. Jay Inslee is committed to a “balanced approach” that protects the health of Washington residents without driving business away from the state.
The Department of Ecology expects to release a draft rule on fish consumption rates early next year.