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Pesticides Enter Salmon Picture

by Lisa Stiffler
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - January 31, 2001

Lawsuit claims toxins impair ability of fish to smell

Dams and trees have dominated the discussion about salmon protection, but local environmental and fishing organizations are trying to put pesticides front and center with a lawsuit filed yesterday against the EPA.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, asks the court to direct immediate steps to protect salmon from pesticides and to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding the effects of pesticides on the endangered fish.

Recent studies conducted by the fisheries service and British scientists suggest that pesticide levels found in the environment can reduce salmon survival by impairing their ability to smell. The fish rely on smell to synchronize reproduction, identify predators and recognize their spawning stream.

"Salmon need their nose," fisheries service research zoologist Nat Scholz said.

The suit was filed by the Washington Toxics Coalition, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Institute for Fisheries Resources.

The groups filed an "intent to sue" in July and have been negotiating with the EPA since.

An EPA spokesman said the agency had not seen the suit and declined comment. The EPA registers pesticides for use and is responsible for ensuring toxicology and environmental tests have been done. The lawsuit plaintiffs claim the agency has failed to perform its duty when creating pesticide use guidelines by not consulting with the fisheries service and by only considering lethal effects on salmon.

"We know that pesticides can kill salmon directly, but they also pose more subtle dangers," said Erika Schreder, a staff scientist at Washington Toxics Coalition, a group working to reduce pesticide use.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the appropriate agency -- in this case the EPA must consult with the fisheries service -- to make sure their actions do not harm endangered species.

"We see that we're doing work addressing dams and habitat loss, but no one is looking at pesticides," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents the commercial fishing industry.

A joint state-federal task force is working to develop a process for determining the impact of pesticides on salmon. The group has been working on this issue for less than a year and has not released a report.

"We'd hate to see the process derailed," said Heather Hansen, executive director of Olympia's Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, a non-profit organization promoting responsible use of pesticides.

"I'm not sure there needs to be the sense of urgency conveyed by the lawsuit," Hansen said. "(We) need calm, rational steps to gather research and determine the real scope of the problem."

More research is being conducted at the fisheries service to study non-lethal effects of pesticides on salmon. Scholz has recently conducted experiments that show an additive effect when salmon brains are exposed to a mix of insecticides. He has also begun studies looking directly at the impact of pesticides on brain function. The question that needs to be answered, said Scholz, is "what's the link between the real world pesticide levels and the biology of the animal."

In the meantime, the lawsuit will begin winding its way through the courts. Patti Goldman, the attorney for the groups who filed the suit, said she expects it to be several months before there is a ruling.

Yesterday's appointment of Christie Whitman as EPA administrator could also affect the situation.

"We need action at the highest level of the EPA to protect salmon from pesticides," Schreder said. "It's an open question whether Christie Whitman will take this issue seriously."

Lisa Stiffler
Pesticides Enter Salmon Picture
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 31, 2001

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