Meeting the Needs of the People

Fish Consumption Rates in the Pacific Northwest

Wendee Nicole


Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11) 

In This Article


Native Americans have lived amidst the Pacific Northwest's pristine rivers and estuaries for millennia, relying on bountiful catches of local fish and shellfish for their sustenance. Because Pacific Northwest tribal populations typically consume much more fish and shellfish than other people in the region,[1] they are exposed to higher levels of toxic chemicals that bioaccumulate in aquatic life—polychlorinated biphenyls, metals, dioxins, and dozens of other toxics found in factory effluent, urban wastewater, and runoff from agriculture and cities.[2,3] As a result, they—along with other groups that eat a lot of fish—face higher risks of developing cancer and other diseases attributable to these chemicals.[4,5]

Tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho have joined forces, hoping to lead the way toward cleaner water and safer fish.[6] As Billy Frank, Jr., a Nisqually Tribe member and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), once wrote, "Fishing defines the tribes as a people. It was the one thing above all else that the tribes wished to retain during treaty negotiations with the federal government 150 years ago. Nothing was more vital to the tribal way of life then, and nothing is more important now."[7] Even when tribes ceded large portions of their traditional lands and moved to reservations, they insisted on maintaining preexisting rights to harvest aquatic resources, and courts have consistently upheld those rights.

Pressure from tribal governments led by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) culminated in Oregon enacting the nation's most protective state[8] water quality standards in 2011.[9] Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would like to see the entire region adopt water quality standards similar to Oregon's.

"We're looking for regional consistency," says Angela Chung, manager of water quality standards for EPA Region 10, which includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and 271 Indian tribes. Washington and Idaho currently are crafting revised water quality standards, but their processes have become increasingly mired in controversy, as businesses, tribes, politicians, and environmental groups debate how stringent the new standards should be.