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Washington State's Toxic Fish Consumption Rules

Grilled salmon.

An accurate fish consumption rate is important to public health because it is used to set water pollution standards.


Case Overview

Studies across Washington State show high levels of toxic pollution in certain types of locally caught fish and shellfish. According to Waterkeepers Washington, represented by Earthjustice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is violating its duty under federal law by failing to take action and protect public health.

On July 23, 2013, Waterkeepers Washington, a coalition of statewide clean water advocates, put the EPA on notice it could be sued under the federal Clean Water Act for failing to protect Washingtonians from toxic pollution entering Puget Sound, the Columbia River, the Spokane River and other waterways.

According to the Waterkeeper groups, EPA is violating the law by allowing Washington’s Department of Ecology to grossly underestimate the state’s fish consumption rate, which is used to set water quality standards. The state of Washington incorrectly estimates its citizens have one of the lowest fish consumption rates in the nation. Consequently, water pollution limits are too high and fail to protect people who eat locally caught fish.

An accurate fish consumption rate is important to public health because it is used to set water pollution standards. Central to the process is estimating how much fish people eat. Washington relies on an outdated system for setting fish consumption rates for water quality instead of establishing rates based on the best available data, particularly local surveys that reflect the amount of fish people actually eat.

In Washington State, fish consumption is estimated at a scant 6.5 grams (less than a quarter ounce) of fish or shellfish a day—a morsel that fits on a snack cracker. The monthly estimate is slightly less than 8 ounces—a modest serving of fillet. Under that estimate, less stringent water pollution limits are set.

Surveys of local Native American tribes dating back to the 1990’s show consumption rates greatly and regularly exceeding the one-fillet-a-month estimate even with severely reduced stocks and contamination of salmon, shellfish, and other fish relied upon by these tribes.

Members of Waterkeepers Washington filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue letter under the Clean Water Act after years of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the federal agency and Ecology to set a realistic fish consumption rate and better protect people's health from the risks of neurological damage, cancer and other diseases.

Case ID


Case Updates

July 8, 2014 | Press Release

Statement of Waterkeepers & Fishermen on Anticipated WA State Fish Announcement

The Governor has announced that he will present a “path forward” on Washington’s fish consumption standard and development of human health water quality criteria on July 9, 2014.

Earthjustice, representing the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, North Sound Baykeeper, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in October 2013 to enforce EPA’s obligation to step in with protective standards where the state has failed to do so.

November 7, 2013 | In the News: Seattle Times

EPA Sued Over Washington Fish-Consumption Estimates

Conservation and commercial fishing groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing state officials to underestimate fish consumption for too long, resulting in weaker anti – pollution standards than are needed to protect the public in Washington State.

“Washington has known for years their estimates are inappropriate and inaccurate,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, “They keep having task forces and roundtables, and nothing is happening. My clients finally said: Enough is enough.”

August 3, 2013 | In the News: KPLU

EPA Put on Notice over Washington State's Fish Consumption Rate

Inaccurate official estimates of Washington’s fish consumption rate have allowed the state’s Department of Ecology to set dangerously inadequate water pollution standards that expose residents to harmful amounts of mercury, lead and other toxins. Waterkeepers Washington is threatening to sue the federal government in order to force the EPA to enforce protections under the Clean Water Act.

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