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Keeping Tribal Traditions a Goal of Fish Toxin Study

by Staff
The Idaho Statesman, October 25, 2003

Effort seeks to track pollutants, lower health risks

The rapids of the Deschutes River in Oregon thunder below Elmer Scott Jr. as he balances on a rickety fishing platform over the ancient fishing grounds of the Warm Springs tribe.

He grasps the end of a thin pole as the net on the other end of the stick bobs and twitches in the roiling current, a trap for unsuspecting salmon.

“Them big guys, they´ll shake the whole scaffold,” said Scott, 53, who camped at the fishing grounds with his family five months out of the year as a child. “They can really scare you.”

Net fishing goes back centuries in this Columbia River tribe, where fish such as salmon, sturgeon and lamprey eels are central to the tribe´s diet and cultural heritage.

But toxins recently discovered in the fish are endangering the traditions and the health of Columbia River tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

A study released last year found 92 contaminants in fish species critical to the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce tribes. Most frequently detected were metals, PCBs, banned pesticides such as DDT and byproducts from chlorine bleach and water chlorination.

Some tribal leaders believe the contamination could violate the tribes´ treaty rights to fish at traditional spots.

“Fish are of paramount importance to tribal culture and we will not accept having fish contaminated or being removed from our diet,” said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an umbrella group for the four tribes.

The study, a joint effort between the Environmental Protection Agency and the inter-tribal commission, sampled 24 tribal fishing spots in the mid-1990s. The results have spurred the tribes to start tracking down polluters — but they also want to protect their centuries-old traditions.

“The last thing any tribal organization wants to do is rap on the door of a tribal elder and say, ´Your fish aren´t safe to eat,´ ” said Hudson. “This whole effort is to prevent that.”

Some worry that the sampling for the study was too limited to be useful. For example, Chris Gannon, a scientist for the Warm Springs tribe, points out that the study didn´t focus on the Deschutes River, a Columbia tributary where the Warm Springs tribe harvests most of its fish. And it didn´t compare the risks of a fish-heavy diet with a diet of processed foods or hamburgers that could be equally unhealthy.

“The study only said, ´Look, these fish are contaminated.´ It didn´t really say what else you might eat or what foods are also contaminated,” said Gannon.

Under his leadership, the Warm Springs tribe hopes to secure up to $1 million in federal funding for a three- to five-year study that would resample fish at sites used in the EPA study, but would also test fish in the Deschutes River.

The study would also do more extensive testing for contaminants in fish cheeks and heads — parts eaten almost uniquely by tribal members — where toxins are likely to build up in the fatty tissue. Scientists may also grind the fish to test for contaminants; the earlier study only tested fillets.

“You don´t want to bias your sample by looking at only one part of the fish,” Gannon said. “We want to sample the whole fish, particularly as it applies to the tribal uses.”

The results will allow the tribe to draw up recommendations for fish consumption and preparation that could reduce or eliminate health risks, Gannon said.

Warm Springs´ tribal council must still approve the proposal for the study, which could happen some time this fall.

According to the EPA study, the toxins can potentially increase the risk of cancer and other diseases, but there are no statistics or anecdotal evidence to suggest that the tribes are already experiencing health problems from eating the fish in the past.

Keeping Tribal Traditions a Goal of Fish Toxin Study
Idaho Statesman, October 25, 2003

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