Idaho wants to know how much fish you eat

September 24, 2013 

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If you are a fish eater, the state of Idaho may want to talk to you soon.

A contractor may call you even if you don’t eat fish as a part of a fish consumption study approved by the Idaho Legislature earlier this year. But first, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has to put out bids for the company that would do the study, which is expected in the next month or so.

You also may get a call from contractors working for Idaho’s five Indian tribes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the tribes $2 million to assess how much fish their members eat.

Lawmakers and the Otter administration thought the state could do it cheaper so they allocated only $300,000. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game did a fish consumption survey recently for $60,000.

Fish consumption rates are important for water quality regulators because they are used to calculate pollution standards that protect human health. Since the tribes are doing their own study, DEQ officials, backed up by the business community, convinced lawmakers they needed to do their own study to ensure they had the data to defend whatever standards they set.

In 2011, Oregon updated its fish consumption rates to 175 grams per day, giving Oregon the most protective water quality standards in the nation. Idaho and Washington’s current standard is based on a consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day, which is about 2 servings per month.

For comparison, the American Heart Association recommends that people consume 2 servings of fish per week. How many are caught in Idaho waters is the key issue.

Northwest tribal leaders want Idaho and Washington to follow Oregon’s example. They stepped up their efforts Monday when Oregon and Washington issued fish consumption advisories for the Columbia River.

“The tribes believe that the long-term solution to this problem isn’t keeping people from eating contaminated fish—it’s keeping fish from being contaminated in the first place,” said Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman Joel Moffett. “Armed with higher fish consumption rates and water quality standards, we hope there will be a greater motivation to remove pollutants from the Columbia River and its tributaries.”

The Idaho study will look at two groups, the general population and people who hold Idaho fishing licenses, said Don Essig, a DEQ water quality specialist who is leading the effort to put together the study.

“The thinking is they may be eating more fish,” Essig said.

Since many waters in Idaho already are not meeting current criteria, lowering the criteria won’t immediately improve water quality, only the list of streams that are not meeting the criteria. But eventually Idaho would have to meet the higher criteria, which would benefit people who eat fish from our waters.

That could add new costs to Idaho businesses but then again, no one wants to have toxins in their water or meal.

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