Meeting the Needs of the People

Fish Consumption Rates in the Pacific Northwest

Wendee Nicole


Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11) 

In This Article

Do Standards Make a Difference?

Don Essig, water quality standards coordinator for Idaho DEQ, remains skeptical that tighter standards are the most efficient way to reduce toxics. "The lower criteria aren't really going to get to what people want, which is less contamination," he says. "It will create a whole lot more waterways that are listed as impaired and will create a lot of work for the department … that I don't think in the end is really going to change things on the landscape."

Jennifer Wigal, water quality standards and assessments manager for ORDEQ, agrees that "the level of significance the standards have for any particular situation is going to vary." Legacy toxics such as polychlorinated biphenyls, which remain in the environment decades after they were banned, are particularly hard to clean up and manage.

"All the pollutants have their own story," Wigal says. "Some have natural sources. Some are purely manmade. Some you don't find often, and some are ubiquitous. [For ubiquitous toxics], standards aren't going to be the end-all-be-all to reduce the levels of those pollutants in the water. A lot of other things need to happen, whether it's cleanup programs or air programs or consumer choices or preferences."

Soscia disagrees with Essig that tighter standards won't make much difference on the ground. "EPA would expect that more stringent criteria in NPDES permits will result in reduced toxic discharges and a long-term reduction in toxics in the environment over time," she says. "We have a lot of toxics problems in our rivers and streams, and … at the highest level, EPA is committed to ensuring protection for high fish consumers." In the end, though, Essig says, tough standards are meaningless without enforcement. And there will always be some level of risk.

"The dialog that I hear is that what we have now is unfair because some people have higher risk," Essig says. "That will always be the case; risks are inherently unequal. We can shift the level of protection higher, for everyone, and yes, that is good, but it comes at a cost." He adds, "If there were no tradeoffs [or] costs involved, the answer would be quite simple—go for the highest of the high."

If the EPA wants to see the entire Pacific Northwest region with fish consumption rates in the ballpark of 175 g/day, will other U.S. regions soon follow? Not including tribal lands, the state with the next highest fish consumption rate used to develop water quality standards is Maine at 32.2 g/day, followed by Minnesota and Alabama at 30 g/day. All other states fall in the teens or lower.[42] Ten other states besides Washington still use the original rate of 6.5 g/day, although several of these states are currently updating their water quality standards.

Florida is set to revise its standards in what may prove to be a contentious battle, if Washington's experience is any indication.[43,44] The EPA just released a study of recreational fishing in Florida, Connecticut, Minnesota, and North Dakota, revealing substantially higher fish consumption than the default value of 17.5 g/day.[45]