Groups Sue to Protect Northwest Salmon from Pesticides

By Cat Lazaroff

SEATTLE, Washington, January 31, 2001 (ENS) - Commercial fishermen joined forces Tuesday with two environmental groups to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failure to protect salmon from the harmful effects of pesticides. The move came as the new EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman prepared to lead the agency.

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Chinook salmon (Photo by Konrad Schmidt courtesy of University of Minnesota)
The Northwest groups are suing to ensure that endangered salmon are a top priority for the new administration. The lawsuit charges that EPA has failed to take the first steps required by the Endangered Species Act to protect salmon from harmful pesticides.

"It is time for EPA to make sure that its regulation of pesticides will prevent jeopardizing the survival of listed salmon," said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the attorney representing the three groups. "It has been ten years since the first salmon were declared threatened. EPA still has done nothing to comply with its duty."

Research by the U.S. Geological Survey has detected 73 pesticides in northwest waterways. Thirteen were above criteria set to protect aquatic life. The agency's most recent study of the Willamette River Basin found pesticides at higher concentrations than in earlier tests.

"The ever increasing amounts of hazardous pesticides found in our rivers and streams are a clear sign of EPA failure to protect threatened and endangered salmon," remarked Aimee Code, with the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. "Our lawsuit will force the new administration to take responsibility for these unacceptable risks."

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Male sockeye salmon in spawning color (Photo by Kate Guthrie, courtesy Northwest Fisheries Science Center )
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency charged with carrying out Endangered Species Act regulations for listed salmon, has indicated serious concern about the effects of pesticides on salmon. In issuing its recent so called 4(d) rule, NMFS stated "concentrations of pesticides may affect salmonid behavior and reproductive success. Current EPA label requirements were developed in the absence of information about some of these subtle but real impacts on aquatic species such as salmonids."

EPA currently makes only limited efforts to determine the effects of pesticides on fish, and even when serious detrimental effects are found, EPA rarely takes action, the groups charge.

The Endangered Species Act requires that federal agencies consult with the relevant agency - here, NMFS - to insure that any action they fund, authorize or carry out does not harm endangered species. The lawsuit charges that the EPA has failed to initiate this consultation with NMFS to determine whether its actions related to pesticide regulation are harming threatened salmon.

The Act also requires that agencies proactively conserve endangered species, and consult on this duty. The EPA has failed to initiate this consultation, the groups say.

The suit seeks to compel EPA to:

Recent studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with salmon recovery, show that pesticides may severely impact salmon survival.

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Pesticides sprayed on crops can run off into nearby waterways (Photo by Doug Wilson, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
There are 24 salmon and steelhead runs on the Pacific coast that are considered threatened or endangered.

"EPA has failed completely to get pesticides out of our waterways so they stop harming salmon," said Erika Schreder of the Washington Toxics Coalition. "We are determined to hold EPA's feet to the fire until the agency does what it takes to protect salmon from pesticides."

Pesticides can have negative impacts on fish growth, development, behavior and reproduction. These chemicals can impair swimming ability, cause abnormal sexual development, and cause skeletal deformities.

Some pesticides are lethal to salmon, and large fish kills have occurred in the Pacific northwest.

Pesticides can also indirectly affect fish by changing the aquatic environment, by reducing the food supply, and by eliminating vegetative cover used by young salmon. Pesticides can reduce salmon's ability to transition from freshwater to seawater.

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Large salmon hauls like this are now harder to come by, due to declining salmon runs (Photo courtesy Oregon Sea Grant)
Salmon and steelhead fishing was once a very valuable industry in the west coast economy. As recently at 1988, according to independent economic studies, salmon and steelhead fishing in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and northern California brought in $1.25 billion to the regional economy and supported an estimated 62,750 family wage jobs.

Since then, however, many salmon runs have declined because of a combination of many factors including too many dams and widespread habitat loss.

"Our fishing communities are suffering because of the decline of salmon," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations Inc. "Fishing families throughout the Northwest need our government agencies to pull out all the stops to recover salmon."