Eat fish; it’s healthy. 

Except when it isn’t.

That’s the quandary that many Pacific Northwest and Columbia River Basin tribal members face as they try to balance their strong historic and cultural ties to salmon with modern studies that show salmon in their area can be polluted by contaminants — among them mercury and a host of other toxic chemicals.

The quandary arises because many tribal members eat more than what health officials suggest is the safe amount of salmon each month — eight 8-ounce servings. Because of that, they are particularly vulnerable to the contaminants that can be in the fish.

A serving is about the size and thickness of a person’s hand.

That recommendation is based on findings that contamination in some fish is high enough to advise people to eat that small amount each month. For most non-tribal people, who average less than that amount, the health risk associated with eating fish is minute.

In comparison, many tribal members in the Pacific Northwest and in the Columbia River Basin, who eat an average of about 16 servings a month over a lifetime, this amount is a health risk. One study went so far as to say that tribal people, on average, eat 6 to 11 times more fish than non-tribal members. Another study said that “according to fish consumption surveys of several tribes in Washington State, tribal people currently eat more than 20 times the amount of fish commonly eaten by non-tribal people.”

In other words, the recommended amount for the general population, which allows for a certain amount of contaminants,  doesn’t take into account the amount of fish tribal members actually eat, and therefore their health and the health of tribal communities are at risk.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, fish is a healthy food, known to be high in protein, low in saturated fats, and rich in other nutrients such as vitamin D, iodine, and selenium. The health benefits of eating fish are well documented and linked to the reduction of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and partial reduction of certain types of cancer. These major chronic diseases afflict much of the U.S. population.

Contaminants in the water — and fish
Mercury is at the top of the list when it comes to dangerous contaminants.

The top three sources of mercury from human activities are diesel fuel combustion, coal-fired power plants, and wastewater treatment plants.

Agriculture and logging are also part of the picture. And rain can even wash chemicals from the land or air into waterways.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, products containing mercury that is improperly thrown in the garbage or washed down drains end up in landfills, incinerators, or sewage treatment facilities. The mercury then leaches into the ground and water. 

Some household products containing mercury are fluorescent light bulbs, pocket calculators, thermostats, and button cell batteries in watches.

Once mercury enters the water and soil, it is naturally converted to methylmercury by bacteria. In water, the bacteria are eaten by plankton and other small creatures, which in turn are eaten by small fish, then larger fish. 

Mercury tends to stay in a body of an organism, so the amount of mercury builds up in species as they go up the food chain in a process called bioaccumulation. Larger, older fish accumulate more contaminants than smaller, younger fish.

As for what a person can do to reduce mercury levels in fish, cooking is not a solution, as would be the case for foodborne toxins such as E. Coli and salmonella, which are killed by heat, simply because mercury is stored in the meat of the fish.

Meanwhile, other toxic chemicals can also get into the water and therefore into the fish through industrial and municipal discharges, agricultural practices, and stormwater runoff. 

When it comes to human health, all of this is a serious food safety issue mainly because contaminants can build up in a person’s body over time and may result in serious health problems, among them, cancer and heart disease. Mercury, for example, is a highly toxic element that can harm the brain, kidneys, and lungs. 

It can take 5 years or more for women in their childbearing years to rid their bodies of some toxic chemicals and 6-12 months to significantly reduce their mercury levels. 

Mercury and other contaminants can be passed on to a developing fetus through the placenta.

Mercury-related health problems are most severe for the developing fetus and young child. Babies born to mothers who have a lot of mercury in their bodies may develop more slowly and have problems learning, according to health officials.

This is serious
When it comes to mercury, the Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that the Willamette River, which flows through Oregon’s most populated areas and feeds into the Columbia River, would need to cut mercury pollution from industry, agriculture, and logging by 88 percent.

But even though Congress gave the EPA orders to clean up Columbia, it didn’t come through with the necessary funding to do so. 

In 2011, Oregon adopted new water-quality standards aimed specifically to protect the health of tribal people. The goal was to reduce chemicals released by industrial facilities and waste-water plants so that people could eat more than one-third of a pound of fish per day without increasing their health risks.

But state regulators took only a few stops to make sure polluters actually met the state’s new limits. Worse yet, it let more than 80 percent of polluters operate with expired permits.

Why do the tribes eat so much salmon?
To begin with, salmon has always been an important part of their diet. For them, it’s medicine. Like other natural foods they’ve always eaten — berries, shellfish, and roots, for example — it keeps them not only well-fed but also healthy.

“All of our foods were medicine because there were no chemicals,” said Wilbur Stockish, who serves on the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission.

That approach to healthy eating is no different from modern-day medical experts who advise people to stick to a natural diet and avoid processed foods.

But it’s more than health.  For many tribal members, fish, especially salmon, is an important part of their identity and their values. They have annual ceremonies welcoming the fish back to their “native rivers,” and tribes make sure their elder members get some of that fish. Not surprisingly, salmon is considered a source of strength and medicine — the most important of all foods on the table.

According to EPA documents, agency staff members have flagged the potential for exposure to chemicals in salmon caught not just in the Columbia but also in Washington’s Puget Sound, British Columbia’s Skeena and Fraser rivers, and California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. 

Salmon are born in streams and rivers, migrate out to the open sea, and then return to their native waters, including rivers, again to reproduce.

Recommendations to eat less salmon
The seemingly simple solution for health officials is to recommend that tribal members eat less salmon. Whereas that solution, at first glance, appears to be a practical one, it isn’t one that meets tribal customs and cultural needs.

“Absolutely not,” said Fran Wilshusen, Habitat Services director at Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “It’s a precious resource. From a health standpoint, it’s one of the best foods you can eat.”

“The long-term solution to this problem isn’t keeping people from eating contaminated fish — it’s keeping it from being contaminated in the first place,” said Aja DeCoteau, executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Stocking agrees. “It is wrong,” he said,” for the government to allow pollution and then, instead of cleaning it up, decide it can tell people not to eat the fish they always have.”

The right to fish
Back in the 1850s, some Washington tribes entered into peace treaties with the U.S. government. In doing so they relinquished millions of acres but in exchange, they preserved their perpetual right to their “usual and accustomed” fishing areas. The 1974 Boldt decision reaffirmed the Tribes’ rights to half of the fish harvested in Washington.

But back in the time of the treaties, the focus was on making sure the tribes had the right to harvest enough fish for their needs, based on their historical catches. 

And while fishing areas and the amount of fish were at the heart of the treaties, water quality was not. It’s likely that back then when the country was so new, that pollution was not something signers on either side of the treaties thought about. 

But since then, of course, water quality has become a critical issue when it comes to fish simply because polluted water contaminates the fish. And that, in turn, can make it unhealthy for tribes, who generally eat more fish than the general population, to eat as much fish as in times past.  

Later, after the signing of the peace treaties, the Supreme Court compared this right to the fish as being as important to Native people as the air they breathe.

Some might say that an option for the tribes is to eat wild-caught salmon from Alaska. But that ignores the ties the tribes and the salmon have to waterways in the Pacific Northwest. It’s those ties that bind them to the land and to their communities.

In Native American tribal communities, fish and other seafood are important to food security, community cohesion, ceremonies, and cultural practices that promote individual and community health and well-being.

For tribal members, ”it’s who they are,” said Wilshusen. “If they lose that, they lose themselves. It’s hard for a lot of people to understand the critical nature of this.”

Wilshusen also said tribal communities are advising people about how to prepare the fish and to fish from waters with low contamination.

The big argument against cleaning up the waterways to benefit the fish has always been that it would cost too much.

“The truth is,” said Wilshusen, “standards should reflect what we know based on science. If you don’t have standards based on science, you won’t get there.”

She is pleased that the public and the water-quality jurisdictions are starting to care.

“People are becoming aware of the toxicity in the water,” she said. “Standards are a way to drive social change. It will make the water we depend on – even the duck hunters and recreational crabbers — clean enough to keep our seafood healthy. And that’s important for food safety. Much good is going on to protect an incredible resource.”

And she pointed out that this is a critical part of “treaty-protected rights, which are the supreme law of the land.”

No easy answers
When all is said and done, The Washington State Health Department has this “bare-boned” conclusion: “Clean water is essential to have healthy fish.” A simple enough decision, but the problem, of course, is how to get there without disrupting the economy.