Eating Columbia River Fish: FAQ
The Columbia River, and the communities that depend on it, face serious threats from toxic pollution. Every day, thousands of pipes discharge toxic pollution from industry, cities, and dirty stormwater runoff. Pesticides and heavy metals enter the river from diffuse sources, such as agricultural runoff and air deposition. Let’s explore what we know about toxics in Columbia River fish; the risks associated with consuming Columbia River salmon; and what people that care about clean water and environmental justice can do about the problem.
What are the primary contaminants of concern?
In 2009, the EPA’s State of the River Report identified four classes of toxic contaminants of the greatest concern in the Columbia River Basin. They were mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, and polybrominated flame retardants (PBDEs). In addition to being toxic, these contaminants are persistent and bioaccumulative, meaning they break down slowly in the environment and accumulate in people and other species. Other toxic contaminants found in the Columbia River Basin today include: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), arsenic, copper, lead, dioxins, radionuclides, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and contaminants of emerging concern like pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
What are the most significant sources of toxic pollution in the Columbia River?
Industrial development is a major contributor to toxic pollution. Pollution sources include factories; wastewater treatment plants; and runoff from agricultural lands, logging, industrial sites, and city streets. As if this weren’t enough, the Columbia Basin is home to hundreds of contaminated waste sites—including the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere: the Hanford Nuclear Site. Studies on Columbia River fish, otters, osprey, and other species reveal the heavy toll of toxic pollution.
Is it safe to eat salmon from the Columbia River?
Salmon and steelhead, that live part of their lives in the ocean, generally contain lower levels of contamination than resident fish (which live their entire lives in the Columbia River). And state-issued fish consumption advisories are more commonly issued for resident fish. However, recent testing by ProPublica and OPB showed salmon with levels of mercury and PCBs that both Oregon and Washington’s health agencies deem unsafe at the levels consumed by Native people living in the the Columbia River Basin. In short, the risk associated with consuming Columbia River salmon depends largely on how much you eat.
But I thought eating salmon was healthy?
Balancing the benefits and risks of fish consumption is a personal choice, and public health officials often caution that any cancer risks must be weighed against the many health benefits of eating fish, including the potential to lower the risk of heart disease. Fish is nutritious, low in saturated fats and a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. The test results from OPB and ProPublica reveal contamination levels in Columbia River salmon high enough to warrant state health agencies to recommend eating no more than eight 8-ounce servings of salmon in a month. For non-tribal people, who consume less fish than the recommended values, the risks are likely minimal. However surveys show that many tribal members consume far more than the recommended servings. Meaning that tribal people face a disproportionate risk through one of their most important foods.
How many fish did ProPublica and OPB test?
In 2021, ProPublica and OPB purchased 50 salmon from tribal fishers upriver of Bonneville Dam. The majority of the fish were fall Chinook salmon, but there were also two coho salmon and one steelhead. The fish were tested for 13 metals and two classes of chemicals (PCBs and dioxins/furans).
Why are tribal populations at higher risk?
Risks are particularly high for tribal people because they eat more locally-caught fish than non-tribal people. Studies in the 1990s detected more than 92 different contaminants in Columbia River fish, some at levels high enough to harm human health. They also showed that tribal people eat six to 11 times more fish than non-tribal members and have cancer risks that are up to 50 times higher than those in the general public. How much fish you eat matters, and salmon is one of the most important foods for Native people in the Columbia River Basin.
Are health advisories the solution to protect people’s health?
No. While public health advisories warn people not to eat fish from polluted waters, they do not come with a binding requirement for agencies to act. Advisories are a last-resort attempt to protect people when pollution prevention and clean up efforts fall short, but they can put serious constraints on traditional tribal diets and burden those who depend on fish as a food source. Advisories do not address the fact that all people deserve the right to consume Columbia River fish without the fear of getting sick.
What can I do?
Support Tribes and organizations fighting for clean water and speak up for clean water. Toxic pollution in the Columbia River is a complicated problem that requires a multifaceted approach. We must fight to clean up the river and reduce ongoing pollution. We need to fight for stronger laws, enforce existing clean water laws, and fund clean water programs, identify polluted sites and advocate for their clean up, and find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. We also need more monitoring and research to understand the sources and impacts of toxic contaminants. And we must use public education and advocacy to change the status quo and protect clean water.
This project has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement RB 01J73501 to Columbia Riverkeeper. The contents of this fact sheet do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor does the EPA endorse trade names or recommend the use of commercial products mentioned in the fact sheet.