Challenge to EPA’s Failure to Protect Salmon from Pesticides

The pesticides diazinon, malathion, chlorpyrifos, carbaryl, and methomyl are known to contaminate waterways throughout California and the Pacific Northwest and poison salmon and steelhead.

Case Overview

Earthjustice is representing the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Defenders of Wildlife, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, an organic farmer, and a commercial salmon fishermen in challenging the federal government’s failure to protect endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead from exposure to five toxic pesticides—diazinon, malathion, chlorpyrifos, carbaryl, and methomyl—which are known to contaminate waterways throughout California and the Pacific Northwest and poison salmon and steelhead.

In 2002, Earthjustice obtained a federal court order declaring that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the impacts that these pesticides have on salmon and steelhead. As a result of that lawsuit, EPA began consultations, but years later NMFS still had not yet issued biological opinions or identified the measures needed to protect salmon and steelhead from the pesticides. In 2007, Earthjustice filed a second lawsuit and entered into a settlement agreement with NMFS that establishes a schedule for issuing the required biological opinions.

In 2008 and 2009, NMFS issued the first in that series of biological opinions and concluded that use of these pesticides would jeopardize the continued existence of 27 species of Pacific salmon and steelhead and destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat for 25 of those species. In the biological opinions, NMFS described specific protective measures that would avoid jeopardizing these imperiled salmon. Two years later, EPA had yet to implement a single one of the protective measures NMFS required to protect the fish.

In November 2010, Earthjustice again turned to the courts, filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle challenging EPA’s continued failure to protect West Coast salmon and steelhead from these toxic pesticides. The suit seeks to force EPA to finally implement the salmon protection measures that NMFS required, including no-spray buffer zones, to reduce the levels of pesticides in salmon-bearing streams.

After years of delay, EPA agreed in August 2014 to impose interim no-spray buffers to help keep harmful levels of these chemicals out of salmon streams. The buffers prohibit aerial spraying within 300 feet and ground spraying within 60 feet of salmon waters until EPA, working with the National Marine Fisheries Service, implements permanent protective measures. Earthjustice will continue to work with our clients to ensure that the agencies develop strong permanent protections for this iconic and economically vital west coast fish.

Sockeye salmon.
Sockeye salmon. (Xuanlu Wang / Shutterstock)

Case Updates

January 9, 2018 document

NMFS Biological Opinion: EPA’s registration of pesticides containing chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon

Excerpts from a report by National Marine Fisheries Service, finding that organophosphate pesticides jeopardize salmon survival and destroy their critical habitat.

Sockeye salmon make their way back up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn.
August 13, 2014 Press Release: Victory

Obama Administration Finalizes Stronger Stream Buffers to Protect Imperiled Salmon from Pesticides

The Environmental Protection Agency today finalized an agreement to restore no-spray buffer zones around waterways to protect imperiled salmon and steelhead from five toxic pesticides. A coalition of conservation organizations, advocates for alternatives to pesticides, and fishing groups cheered the victory. These groups brought a lawsuit to demand reasonable fish protections from the insecticides, some of which are derived from nerve toxins developed during World War II. “We know our Northwest farmers and growers to be good land and water…