The National Research Council today issued a report finding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must do more to ensure that pesticides do not harm threatened and endangered fish and wildlife. The report, Assessing Risks to Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides, outlines significant steps to improve EPA’s current methods for evaluating the risk that pesticides pose to imperiled Pacific salmon as well as other fish and wildlife.
Among the report’s recommendations are that EPA more broadly account for pesticides’ direct and indirect harm to wildlife—including harm that is not immediately lethal, and impacts to food supply and habitat—and better consider the combined effects of exposure to multiple pesticides mixing in the environment. These recommendations echo what federal fisheries and wildlife scientists have been finding for years.
“This all boils down to doing the right thing: protecting wildlife and ultimately all of us from pesticide exposures,” said Aimee Code of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.
The report’s recommendations will help Pacific salmon populations impacted by the approximately 200 million pounds of pesticides applied on the West Coast every year. Based on extensive research, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has found that 21 commonly used pesticides (including herbicides, fungicides and insecticides) jeopardize already imperiled salmon and steelhead populations. While the report does not directly review those decisions, it affirms many of the factors NMFS examined in its analyses.
Protecting salmon is a major economic benefit to rural inland and coastal communities. As recently as 25 years ago salmon fishing was a $1.25 billion dollar industry in the Pacific Northwest, supporting more than 62,000 family wage jobs. Today it brings in only about 20 percent of that amount. Pesticides at levels that exceed EPA’s own maximum aquatic standards occur in many West Coast rivers. Pesticides have been identified by NMFS as an important factor in ongoing salmon declines.
“Poisoning salmon rivers puts people out of work and threatens public health. It is far more cost effective to keep poisons out of rivers to begin with, than to try to clean them up afterwards,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice sees the report as a call to action. “This review of EPA’s pesticide regulation underscores the need to account for the very real harm that pesticides cause to endangered and threatened wildlife, ” Mashuda said. “EPA should act immediately and work with federal wildlife agencies to overhaul the way it regulates these chemicals.”
The report also recommends ways EPA, NMFS, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can better work together to ensure that pesticide regulation adequately protects imperiled fish and wildlife.
“People and wildlife remain at serious risk because of inadequate protections from pesticides,” said Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “This report strengthens the scientific foundation for assessing how pesticides can harm wildlife, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to overcome the budgetary and political hurdles that continue to undermine wildlife conservation efforts.”
The report’s findings highlights that scientists should be making scientific judgments to guide pesticide risk assessments. “The attention should be on the science and the law, not on politics,” Glen Spain added. “This report helps point where the science leads—now it’s time for EPA to follow and adopt long-overdue reforms to protect fish, wildlife, and humans from harmful pesticides.”
The Endangered Species Act requires EPA to consult with wildlife scientists for chemicals applied to crops within the habitat of at-risk wildlife. In 2008, NMFS issued the first in a series of biological opinions finding that many of the most broadly toxic pesticides harm and kill salmon to such a degree that they threaten nearly every population of salmon and steelhead species on the West Coast with extinction. As the expert fisheries biologists confirmed, pesticides can harm salmon in a number of ways, including killing them directly, impairing their growth, reproduction, ability to swim, affecting their food supply and habitat, and interfering with their ability to navigate back to their home streams to spawn.
The biological opinions required EPA to implement a range of no-spray buffer zones and other restrictions to keep these deadly chemicals out of salmon streams. Five years later, EPA has still not put any of these restrictions in place and is allowing pesticide use to contaminate the waters of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. Part of the agency’s excuse for delay has been that it its own procedures adequately protected species. The National Research Council panel issuing today’s report was convened to evaluate the differences in risk assessment procedures used by EPA and those employed by federal wildlife biologists.