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Pesticides and salmon: It ain't about the fish

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Ben Long | Sep 11, 2012 06:00 AM

Ask folks what is the most pressing environmental issue facing America and they’re most likely to say: Water. Protect the water.

So shame on Beltway lobbyists taking apart the legal framework we’ve built to protect our water and the species that depend on it. After all, those species include human beings.

King salmon caught off Alaska (C) Ben Long

See the photo here? That’s a king salmon caught by my Norwegian cousin Ole (hoisting the fish) and my dad (grinning next to him.) I’d try to describe how good that fish tasted, grilled that evening on the shore of Kechemak Bay, but I could not do it justice.

The problems salmon face because of dams and overfishing are well known. But another issue has received less press. Salmon are excellent “indicators” of clean water, the proverbial canary in a coalmine with gills.

Recently, scientists have noticed that even streams that look healthy can be loaded with pesticides from wind drift and runoff.

Pesticides do important work. We use them to control insects that spread disease and more efficiently grow food. But they can be bad news in the wrong places.

According to scientists like John Stark of Washington State University, many streams have become pesticide “soups.” Once in the water, these pesticides mix into super-concoctions, sometimes 100 times more toxic than the original chemicals alone.

In-stream pesticides kill fish by causing brain damage, sterilization, turning males into females, destroying their senses or wiping out the smaller water bugs young salmon need to survive.

Remember, this is not about fish. You, my dad, Cousin Ole and me are all part of the food chain that includes salmon. Problems in streams are problems for all of us.

So how does all this link back to Congress? Federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, should regulate the use of pesticides to make sure we aren’t driving species to extinction and that we are keeping our waterways as clean as possible. It’s not about banning pesticides – it’s about making sure they are used responsibly.

But pesticide manufacturing is a $32 billion/year industry. As Congress revises the massive Farm Bill, industry lobbyists are twisting arms to include loopholes to avoid the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act regarding pesticides and salmon. Those loopholes are in the version that recently passed the relevant committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s up to the Senate to remove them.

This is relevant far beyond the salmon streams of Washington and Oregon, or even the man-made steelhead and salmon fisheries of the Great Lakes of Michigan and Minnesota. It’s pertinent anywhere people depend on pesticides, but also depend on clean water, from New York to California.

I’m writing to Sen. Baucus here in Montana. If he needs help cutting out these loopholes, I’ve got a filet knife he can borrow.

Image: King salmon fresh from the Pacific Ocean off Alaska © Ben Long

 Ben Long is an author, conservationist and outdoorsman from Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media and believes overcooking salmon is a crime against nature.

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