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Strengthening Washington State’s Fish Consumption and Human Health Water Quality Rules

Grilled salmon.

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


What's at Stake

By assuming fish consumption is so low, Washington allows too much of pollutants that accumulate in fish and shellfish tissue; therefore, Washington’s human health water quality standards are not protective for people who eat fish.

Case Overview

The Clean Water Act requires states to promulgate, and keep updated, water quality standards that protect designated uses of water such as recreation, drinking or fishing (and eating the fish caught). Washington State’s human health water quality standards, particularly those meant to protect consumption of fish, were woefully out of date and do not protect citizens of Washington for the amount of fish they actually consume. When a state is failing its obligations under the Clean Water Act, the Act requires EPA to step in.

In October 2013, after years of trying to convince the state to take action to amend its outdated and unprotective human health water quality standards, Earthjustice, on behalf of Waterkeepers Washington, a coalition of statewide clean water advocates, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, commenced suit against the EPA in federal district court. Earthjustice argued that EPA has determined that Washington fish consumption rate (the amount of fish people in Washington actually consume) and human health water quality standards are inadequate and in violation of the requirements of the Clean Water Act. Based on that determination, EPA had an obligation to step in and promptly take over the process.

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 in turn is used to set water quality standards for various toxic pollutants such as PCBs, mercury and arsenic. The State of Washington incorrectly assumes its citizens eat one very small meal of fish a month. 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.

In fact, surveys show that many Washington citizens eat far more fish and shellfish in a month and certain groups such as tribal members and members of the Asian community eat orders of magnitude more fish than estimated by the state. 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. EPA requires the state to use surveys to set fish consumption rates and water quality standards.

By assuming fish consumption is so low, Washington allows too much of pollutants that accumulate in fish and shellfish tissue; therefore, Washington’s human health water quality standards are not protective for people who eat fish.

Case ID



Case Updates

March 9, 2015 | Blog Post

Washington State’s Numbers Game

The state’s funny math on water quality standards adds up to toxic waterways, mercury-laden fish and weakened cancer risk protections.

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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