March 4, 2014 by Catherine O'Neill

Washington State's Weakened Water Quality Standards Will Keep Fish Off the Table, Undermine Tribal Health

In recent weeks, celebrations throughout the Pacific Northwest marked the 40th anniversary of the “Boldt decision” – the landmark decision in the tribal treaty rights case, U.S. v. Washington.  This decision upheld tribes’ right to take fish and prohibited the state of Washington from thwarting tribal harvest.  Judge Boldt’s 1974 decision was intended to close a chapter in our history during which tribal fishers were harassed, beaten, and imprisoned for the act of fishing.  In recognition of this anniversary, the Washington state legislature voted to clear the criminal records of all the tribal people who had been arrested for fishing – that is, for exercising the rights they had been guaranteed under the treaties.  Yet the legacy of this shameful era may be revived if Washington’s Department of Ecology calculates water quality standards so as to reflect and perpetuate the time when tribes could not harvest salmon and other fish.

Water quality standards determine how much pollution will be allowed in our waters and, as a consequence, in the fish we all eat.  Water quality standards are human health-based; they are currently set by means of risk assessment.  Environmental agencies such as Ecology enlist risk assessment equations that determine …

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