Do you eat Idaho fish? State officials want to know

A survey will help the DEQ set pollution standards that protect human health.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comSeptember 27, 2013 

Brownlee is among the lakes and reservoirs in the study.


A contractor may call you as 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 to find a company to do the study, which is expected in the next month.

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 study Idahoans' eating habits when it comes to trout, bass and other Idaho fish.

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

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already has hired a contractor to assess how much fish the members of Idaho's five Indian tribes eat.

Fish-consumption rates are important to water quality regulators, because they are used to calculate pollution standards that protect human health. If people eat more fish, then water-quality standards need to be stronger.

In 2011, Oregon updated its fish-consumption rate estimate to 175 grams per day, giving Oregon the most protective water quality standard in the nation. Idaho and Washington's current standard is based on a consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day per person, which is about two servings per month - or, as one wag explained, enough fish to fit on a saltine.

The American Heart Association recommends that people consume two servings of fish per week. How many of those are caught in Idaho waters is the key issue for regulators.

EPA has told Idaho and Washington that their consumption-rate estimate is out of date and that the two states must do a new study.

In 2012, EPA rejected Idaho's revised human health criteria for 88 toxic chemicals. Michael Bussell, EPA Region 10 director of the Office of Water and Watersheds, told Idaho officials it preferred that the state update the standards itself, but he threatened the EPA would step in if the state didn't do the work. The state is redoing its toxic standards.

Bussell suggested the state use the tribal studies, but DEQ officials convinced lawmakers to spend $300,000 so the state could do its own.

Tribal leaders say fish, an important part of the tribal diet tied to their spiritual connection to the earth, makes up a higher percentage of diets today than in the 1970s.

Northwest tribal leaders want Idaho and Washington to follow Oregon's example. They stepped up their efforts Monday after advisories were issued this week for fish consumption on the Columbia River.

Tests on Columbia fish showed levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at 183 parts per million, way above the 0.47 million parts per million federal standard. Mercury levels were 0.26 parts per million, slightly above the 0.22 ppm limit.

The mercury comes from a variety of sources regionally, including mines in Nevada and old mining sites as well as worldwide pollution from power plants and other sources. PCBs come from a variety of industrial processes.

In 2009, a national screening-level survey of chemical residues in fish tissue from lakes and reservoirs in the lower 48 states showed that 48.8 percent of 36,422 lakes sampled had mercury tissue concentrations that exceeded the 300 parts per billion human health safe level. PCBs were detected in game fish at levels of potential concern at 17 percent of lakes and reservoirs.

Seven Idaho lakes and reservoirs were included in the study: Bear, Blackfoot, Brownlee, Palisades, and Priest Lake, as well as Enos and Loon lakes in Valley County.

"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."

Since many waters in Idaho do not meet current standards, tougher criteria won't immediately improve water quality; it will just expand the list of Idaho waters that don't meet the criteria.

But eventually Idaho would have to meet the higher standards - which would benefit people who eat fish from our waters, but add possible new costs to Idaho businesses that would have to comply with the stricter rules.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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