On one hand, we’re told that salmon are one of the world’s healthiest foods, a great source of vitamin D, vitamin B12, protein and omega-3 fats, which are good for heart, eye, brain and joint health.
On the other hand, the state Department of Health has fish consumption advisories in place that tell us not to eat more than one meal per week of Puget Sound chinook salmon, or, if the chinook salmon resides full-time in Puget Sound and doesn’t migrate to sea, no more than two meals per month.
The reason: salmon pick up and accumulate toxins in their fish tissue, nasty things like dioxin, mercury and PCBs, pollutants that persist in the environment and work their way up the food chain.
It can be confusing at best to chart the right course of action when it comes to eating salmon.
Wild salmon from the oceans have lower pollution levels, especially those from the remote waterways of Alaska and British Columbia. And certain species such as coho, chum, pink and sockeye are not subject to fish consumption advisories because of lower pollution levels than the levels found in chinook.
Further complicating matters is the fact that water quality standards designed to control pollution levels in fresh water and marine waters are out of sync with how much fish people eat in this state.
The standards assume that people eat one, 7-ounce serving of fish per month, which is too conservative, especially for certain populations, including American Indians, recreational fishers and those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
For instance, studies have shown that some Puget Sound tribal members consume up to 12 ounces of fish per day.
The state is in the process of updating fish consumption levels to better reflect reality. This, in turn, should lead to more stringent water quality standards more protective of the fish-eating public.
Environmental and health officials in this state need look no further than our neighbors to the south for some guidance on this issue. Oregon has upgraded its fish consumption rates and the state Department of Environmental Quality responded with tougher pollution discharge standards.
Since most of the pollutants of concern are long-lasting in the environment, it will take years to see positive results in fish species popular with consumers.
But that’s no excuse to delay a more realistic assessment of fish consumption levels and pollution discharges allowed in the state’s waterways.