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Salmon health warning nears

State health officials will warn against eating more than a limited amount of the hatchery-raised, Puget Sound-dwelling blackmouth

SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune

Like dancers in an underwater ballet, hundreds of baby chinook salmon dart and swirl as one, their leopard-like markings standing out against the gray walls of narrow, concrete rearing troughs. For decades, the state has reared millions of chinook like these in Lakewood and elsewhere for release into Puget Sound.
The purpose of these fish, under state law, is to be caught by recreational anglers.

But new evidence suggests that by the time these so-called resident chinook are big enough to catch, they are likely contaminated with PCBs, chemical compounds dangerous to people.

Scientists suspect they become more contaminated than other types of chinook because state Department of Fish and Wildlife managers delay release of the fish to suppress the desire to migrate to the ocean. That means these chinook mature in the polluted waters of Puget Sound and never leave for the cleaner waters of the Pacific.

It’s worrisome enough that the Washington Department of Health is preparing to issue the state’s first warning to consumers about eating salmon contaminated with PCBs.

Most consumers won’t notice. The advisory, under discussion for more than a year, doesn’t affect the salmon sold by grocers and restaurants.

Rather, the advisory will be narrowly targeted at fishermen who catch blackmouths, named for the dark jaw lines that set the juveniles apart from adults. Anglers typically go blackmouth fishing in winter when migrating adult chinook are absent from Washington’s inland waters.

But, because of the contamination, some independent environmental and health experts say it’s time to end the resident blackmouth program.

It is “absolutely not� appropriate for a government agency to cultivate fish this way, said Dr. David O. Carpenter, a professor of public health and former dean of the School of Public Health at the University at Albany, N.Y.

“This is taken by most people to mean that the government says they’re safe. And, clearly, they are not,� said Carpenter, who reviewed a summary of new research at the request of The News Tribune.

Managers at Fish and Wildlife await an official Health Department recommendation. They’ve discussed the contamination issue with sport fishermen and their representatives but say more research is needed.

“We are very sensitive to this issue and will work hand in glove with the Department of Health to do the right thing,� said Lew Atkins, Fish and Wildlife fish programs director. “The question is what that is.�

Sport-fishing advocates acknowledge declining interest in the blackmouth program but don’t want to end it.

“To give up what’s historically been a very popular fishery â€" we don’t want to go there,â€? said Clint Muns of Shelton, a founder of the advocacy group Puget Sound Anglers and chairman of a state fishing advisory committee for blackmouth. “I don’t know anybody who eats a lot of winter blackmouth anyway.â€?

State Health Department officials are reluctant to warn against eating fish such as salmon because of the nutritional benefits. Salmon are an excellent source of protein and beneficial fatty acids.

However, the relatively high levels of PCBs found in resident blackmouth demand caution, said Rob Duff, who directs the Health Department’s environmental health assessment program.

“Unfortunately, the blackmouth, likely because they spend their whole life in the Sound, will require some advice,� Duff said.

He expects the Health Department’s advisory will caution anglers against eating more than one blackmouth meal a week or perhaps two meals a month. The advisory is likely to be issued in September, he said.

Health Department officials plan to share a draft with representatives of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which co-manages fisheries with the state, on Thursday.

INHIBITING THE URGE TO MIGRATE

Each year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife spends about $1.6 million to produce 5.5 million blackmouth. The money, as directed by the Legislature, comes from license fees.

Of those 5.5 million fish, nearly 1.5 million are reared for 14 months, long enough to inhibit their natural migration to the ocean. These resident fish are released at 10 sites around Puget Sound, including Chambers Bay, near the Lakewood rearing ponds.

About 25 percent of fish caught during the Sound’s winter blackmouth season â€" or about 5,000 fish â€" come from this fish-rearing program, said Heather Bartlett, a Fish and Wildlife manager.

The rest hatch in other programs that produce tens of millions of king salmon but don’t impede the chinook’s natural inclination to mature in the Pacific Ocean.

The delayed-release blackmouth production began in the late 1960s or early 1970s after then-Gov. Al Rosellini pushed for a program to produce king salmon for year-round sport fishing, said Tony Floor, a former manager of Fish and Wildlife’s resident blackmouth program who sits with Muns on the advisory committee.

“You could go out before work and catch two blackmouth and still be at work at 8 a.m.,� Floor said. “It was like opening day of trout season. It was fantastic.�

AT ISSUE: PCB CONTAMINATION

The state Health Department’s primary concern is the effect of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, on children and women of childbearing age who could pass on the contamination in the womb and in breast milk.

Scientific studies have found PCBs harm children in ways similar to lead exposure. PCBs reduce intelligence and create persistent behavioral abnormalities, said Carpenter, the New York public health professor.

Manufacture of PCB compounds has been banned in the United States since 1977. Before that, PCBs were widely used in industrial applications. But they do not break down over time and are among the most commonly identified pollutants at Superfund sites nationwide.

Scientists who have studied contaminants in Puget Sound suspect PCBs are recycled within the marine food web. PCBs attach to fats. Plankton and other single-celled organisms likely pick up PCBs and pass them on to larger critters. Higher up the food chain, they become more concentrated.

The levels of PCBs detected in Puget Sound chinook salmon disturb some orca conservation advocates.

Hatchery-reared, resident blackmouth harm orcas that eat them, said Fred Felleman, a Seattle marine mammal biologist and environmental activist.

Health Department officials may warn fishermen against a steady diet of blackmouth, but that doesn’t help marine mammals, Felleman said.

“Anglers have a choice,� he said. “Our killer whales don’t.�

NEW RESEARCH RAISES CONCERNS

The problem of contamination in Puget Sound chinook salmon became public in 2004.

That October, Sandie O’Neill, a Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, told the state Fish and Wildlife Commission that chinook caught in Puget Sound were three times as contaminated with PCBs as chinook from Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, coastal Washington and the Columbia River.

At the time, O’Neill and other scientists suspected Puget Sound might be the source of the contamination, but they had not yet concluded that resident chinook are more contaminated than the ones that migrate out.

At the time, the Health Department’s Duff said a human health warning wasn’t needed.

Subsequent testing changed minds.

In follow-up research, O’Neill and scientists from the federally supported Northwest Fisheries Science Center pursued a more detailed study of contaminants in the diet of Puget Sound’s orcas, which were granted Endangered Species Act protection last year.

Outcomes were released in April when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hosted a Seattle conference on orcas. O’Neill cited the results of chemical analysis of resident chinook caught in late fall from an area near Kingston, Kitsap County.

For the 33 fish tested, the average concentration of PCBs was 88 parts per billion, she said. At that concentration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for minimizing that risk of cancer recommend no more than half a meal a month. For other health effects, such as developmental damage to children, the EPA recommendation is no more than two meals a month.

Health experts dispute whether the EPA’s standards are appropriate, but the guidance remains the most commonly used. It is geared to adults, not children, and also is based on cuts of fish that people eat, not the whole bodies tested by O’Neill in the orca study.

O’Neill also said test results suggest that the longer chinook reside in Puget Sound and the bigger they grow, the more contaminated they become.

This is in contrast to oceangoing chinook salmon, in which concentrations of pollutants appear to drop with increased fish size, she said.

‘WE SHOULD NOT BE DOING THIS’

The News Tribune shared a summary of O’Neill’s results with Carpenter, the New York public health professor, and James Karr, a University of Washington emeritus professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.

Carpenter said the high concentrations of PCBs clearly pose a hazard to consumers. He participated in research on contaminants in farmed salmon, results of which appeared in the academic journal Science in 2004.

“People should be taking this seriously,� he said. “These contaminants don’t cause immediate illness. … That is not to say people are not going to get cancer at some point.�

Karr, who finds fault with many fish hatchery practices, called it irresponsible to continue rearing blackmouth to remain resident in Puget Sound.

“We should not be doing this,� he said. “This is a serious health threat to humans, especially children.�

Karr also takes issue with the EPA fish consumption guidelines, which he believes discount the true risks.

Even if the Health Department issues a warning, some anglers might not find out about it and others might disregard it.

Good government looks out for the well-being of its most vulnerable, including unborn children, Karr said. If drivers aren’t allowed to carry small children unless they are strapped into car seats, government should not rear fish that grow dangerous for children to eat, he said.

‘THEY’RE GONE’

Sport fishermen say the blackmouth fishery has deteriorated over time. They blame hatchery cutbacks, habitat destruction and state obligations to protect the rights of treaty tribes and wild chinook salmon.

Federal officials listed wild Puget Sound chinook as threatened with extinction in 1999.

“I don’t know of anyone in 2006 that eats blackmouth once a week or once a month,� said Floor, the former blackmouth program manager.

Ask sport fishermen who hang out at the Point Defiance boathouse about blackmouth, and you’ll likely get an answer like this: “They’re gone,� said Dale Brenzel, who lives in South Tacoma. “You used to be able to get your limit in an hour. Now you’re lucky if you can get one in a week.�

Still, advocates for the fishing industry do not want the state to quit rearing them. State Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a former state senator from Shelton, sponsored a 1993 law to guarantee the blackmouth program’s future. Both ardently support the program, and neither has been briefed about the contamination problem.

“Are these truly harmful levels, or are we putting out a scare that’s unnecessary?� asked Owen. “I’d much rather see us solving the problem that’s creating this than eliminating the program.�

Muns acknowledged that “it’s kind of scary to think about� high levels of contamination in Puget Sound herring stocks, which serve as prey for salmon. As the region’s human population grows, he figures additional fishing restrictions are likely. Perhaps a catch-and-release program would work, he said.

Besides, he said government-run hatcheries still produce fish in places like the Great Lakes, which are highly contaminated and where numerous consumption warnings prevail.

“There’s phenomenal fishing in the Great Lakes for salmon,� Muns said. “People don’t move here just to drive on our freeways. It’s the quality of life and the opportunity to fish.�

In Michigan, fish biologist Jim Dexter recalled similar debates within his department 10 years ago on the ethics of producing hatchery fish for the contaminated Lake Michigan.

In Michigan, as in Washington, the salmon program is supported by license fees. Michigan’s health department publishes a booklet detailing statewide fish consumption warnings.

“Our job is to provide a sport fishery and sound ecosystems,� said Dexter, who coordinates the Lake Michigan fishery. “People need to make informed decisions for themselves rather than having us dictate to them.�

WHAT’S NEXT

Dave Herrera, a Skokomish tribal member who chairs the environmental policy committee of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said he’s waiting to see what Health Department officials recommend.

“To us, the critical thing is cleaning up the environment so the fish, regardless of resident or migrating, are as healthy as they can be for us and everybody else,� he said.

Existing fish consumption advisories warn people not to eat bottom fish and shellfish from heavily polluted areas such as Commencement Bay, a Superfund cleanup site.

Health and wildlife experts agree the blackmouth problem is a manifestation of the larger problem of pollution in the Sound.

“These contaminants have leached into the marine environment of Puget Sound,� said Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with Fish and Wildlife who studies harbor seals. “It’s not just blackmouth. If you think the Sound is as clean as it was 50 years ago, you’re fooling yourself. By definition, a polluted marine environment is unhealthy.

“If you care about Puget Sound, you should be concerned about where these contaminants have come from. … What the public needs to realize is everything we produce flows into Puget Sound one way or another. Whether it’s atmospheric deposition, flushing toilers or fertilizing lawns.�

What are blackmouth?

Immature chinook salmon. The name refers to the chinook’s black gumline.

What are chinook?

Chinook, also known as king, are the largest of Pacific salmon. They feed on herring and sand lance, among other prey fish in Puget Sound.

How big do they get?

While oceangoing chinook might weigh as much as 130 pounds, blackmouth caught in Puget Sound typically weigh 6 to 12 pounds.

Does Endangered species act apply?

All chinook go through a blackmouth phase. Native Puget Sound chinook salmon are threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. But federal law does not protect the hatchery-bred blackmouth targeted by fishermen.
 

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that particular article seems like it's got a bias against recreational fishermen and the blackmouth program in general. i think it's rather disconcerting that it blames the fish themselves on man-made problems(the extreme pollution of our puget sound) and says we should get rid of the fishery all together rather than working on the real problem(cleaning up the sound).

i thought it was interesting that it talked about less participation by anglers in recent years. here in southern MA13, the state closed down mcallister creek's hatchery and the rearing program at percival cove -- two major blackmouth rearing facilities in the south sound. no wonder there's less participation, there's less fish to catch!
 

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I am pretty sure that same article was a topic this time last year as well. If you all are afraid of eating to much I will gladly add it to my supply. wink:
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
knucklehead said:
the state closed down mcallister creek's hatchery and the rearing program at percival cove -- two major blackmouth rearing facilities in the south sound. no wonder there's less participation, there's less fish to catch!
Yea the State doesn't seem to understand that the majority of fisherman actually want to catch something.
Not just have the opportunity to wet a line with nothing to catch or keep if you are lucky enough to hook something. But with conservation groups complaining about hatchery fish I am sure we have not seen the last of the hatchery cuts.
 

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The silver lining is that we should be able to use those blackmouth impacts to extend our summer chinook seasons instead.
 

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How old is that article? I thought Bob Oke retired a few years back?
It seems odd to me is that we should not produce blackmouth because its bad for the environment and whales. How about we clean up the sound instead of just removing all the sea life from it. I don't fish for Blackmouth but I don't think producing them is bad for the environment, the environment is bad for the blackmouth...
 

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It is in the present WDFW fishing regulations --

Puget Sound Salmon Consumption Advice
Marine Area/ Location Salmon Species Women of Childbearing Age Children General Population
6 thru 13 Puget Sound Marine Areas Chinook All Groups: 1 meal per week
6 thru 13 Puget Sound Marine Areas Chinook (Blackmouth)* All Groups: 2 meals per month
6 thru 13 Puget Sound Marine Areas Coho** All Groups: No restrictions
6 thru 13 Puget Sound Marine Areas Chum, Pink, Sockeye All Groups: No restrictions
* Winter blackmouth fi shery in Puget Sound.
** If you eat more than 2 meals per week follow DOH’s fish preparation recommendations to reduce exposure to contaminants.

I think it was there for the last few years. I should have mentioned it when I made reference to the consumption advisory being dropped on Lake Chelan.

If you are already feeling pretty stupid, pay no attention to the warnings.

Did you know that when an Orca whale dies it becomes a toxic waste site? They become so contaminated from eating Chinook salmon primarily. Top of the food chain (like us)
means all the contaminants roll up ward to the top -- from the bottom of the chain to the top.

Bottom line is, we all better get it cleaned up, or we will be eating farmed algae tablets, or soylent green.


This short blurb from wikipedia-

Set in the year 2022, Soylent Green depicts a dystopian future in which the population has grown to forty million in New York City alone. The water and soil have been poisoned and airborne pollution has produced a year-round heatwave from the greenhouse effect. Most housing is dilapidated and overcrowded, and impoverished homeless people fill the streets.
¨Processed "Soylent Green" ration wafers
¨Processed "Soylent Green" ration wafers

Food as we know it todayâ€"including fruit, vegetables, and meatâ€"is a rare and expensive commodity. Half of the world's population survives on processed rations produced by the massive Soylent Company, including Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, which are advertised as "high-energy vegetable concentrates". The newest product is Soylent Green - a small green wafer which is advertised as being produced from "high-energy plankton". It is much more nutritious and palatable than the red and yellow varieties, but it is in short supply, which often leads to riots.

Off my soap box for the moment. Peace.
 

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I don't know if this is true or not but I think I remember hearing that when they do these tests, they grind up a whole fish to test and that most of the contaminants are in the guts, not the meat. So the the tests are kind of unreliable as far as if the meat is actually that bad for human consumption. Its a good way to scare people away from blackmouth fishing though. I don't think blackmouth fishing has declined because of lack of interest , I think if they raised and released more blackmouth the fishermen would be inclined to go out fishing more often. I know I would. Its hard to justify going out more often when the fish are so few and far between .Especially when gas is so expensive.
 
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