How Toxic is your Fish?

Have you ever wondered what else is accompanying those rich omega-3s when you’re indulging in some local, wild-caught Columbia River steelhead for dinner?

According to an ongoing study by the Willamette Riverkeeper, that meal may contain a high dose of toxic chemicals like mercury and flame retardants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect development and nervous system function, and flame retardants are associated with hormone and fertility problems, and birth defects. Luckily, anadromous fish, who spend their early and later years in freshwater, and adult lives in the ocean, have fewer, lower levels of these toxic chemicals than other Columbia River fish. However, steelhead and salmon are not the only fish caught for the dinner table in the Northwest’s $3.5 billion sport fishing industry.

In fact, many of the fish tested in this study, including sturgeon, shad, carp, and walleye, were caught by fisherman with the intention of consumption. Many locals, especially those of low-income, immigrant, or tribal status, rely on fish as a source of food and in many cases as a part of cultural tradition. Despite the fish advisory signs warning fishermen away from the Walleye with 175 times the level of PCBs of the EPA’s limit for consumption (or the sturgeon with 7,000 times the limit), catching and eating these fish may be one of the only options for dinner, or an important cultural practice.

The Riverkeeper argues that this study is a call for cleanup. EPA guidelines are not very successful in curbing risky consumption, and are only available for certain chemicals (“emerging” toxins, like flame retardants and pharmaceuticals, don’t have set limits). This is certainly a tricky call to action, however, considering the 11-mile Portland Harbor Superfund site on the Willamette River. Here’s to hoping that this and other studies can serve as encouragement to initiate the cleanup of contaminated sites.

For more information about the study, see the Willamette Riverkeeper’s “Is Your Fish Toxic?”

Cover photo courtesy of the Willamette Riverkeeper

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