The Environmental Protection Agency says Idaho residents likely eat more fish than the average American, so the state and the Nez Perce Tribe are working to determine just how much.
The data will be used to write water quality standards designed to protect the health of fish eaters. The more fish that people eat, the safer the fish and the water they live in need to be.
Idaho has long used a default fish consumption rate set by the EPA that says the typical resident consumes an average of 17.5 grams of fish per day, the equivalent of about two 8-ounce fish meals per month.
But surveys show the rate is higher for Idahoans, particularly those who like to catch and eat salmon and other resident fish, said Don Essig, water quality official with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
"The situation is based on the salmon culture in the Pacific Northwest," he said.
The state and tribe are conducting separate telephone surveys and other interviews over the next 12 months. Idaho plans to interview about 4,500 people, Essig said. Tribal interviewers will survey about 700 tribal members.
Oregon recently upped its fish consumption rate to an average of 175 grams per day, or about 23 fish meals per month. Joel Moffett, the treasurer for the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said he would like to see Idaho do something similar.
"We consume a lot of fish and we want our members protected. We want them eating healthy fish and that falls back on healthy waters," he said.
Fish accumulate the toxins and pollutants that enter streams, rivers and lakes as they consume aquatic insects and other fish.
Essig said the standards include 168 criteria designed to protect fish eaters from 88 different chemicals and compounds, including organic compounds and to a lesser extent heavy metals. The surveys will try to tease out not only how much fish people eat, but also the amount that comes from Idaho's lakes, streams and rivers.
"We will be asking people about their entire consumption, then ask additional questions about where it came from," Essig said. "Eventually, we will be able to say people say they eat (X amount) but (X percent) comes from local streams."
James Holt, director of the tribe's Water Resources Division, said the data also will be used to set water quality standards on the Nez Perce Reservation.
Essig said the state and tribe will communicate about the results. It is yet to be determined whether Idaho's water quality standards will be set based on the higher fish consumption rates of the state's tribal populations.
"That is an open question," Essig said.