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Know the West

Toxic fish taint tribal diet


Seafaring salmon are struggling against extinction, but they might be safer than some of their neighbors in the Columbia River.

During a recent study, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission found that Columbia River fish - especially species like mountain whitefish and white sturgeon, which spend their entire lives in the Columbia - are contaminated with more than 90 chemicals, including DDT, mercury, arsenic and PCBs.

This means that some Northwestern Indians, who eat fish up to 48 times a month, face a greater danger of immune system, development and liver disorders, and may be 50 times more at risk for cancer than the general public. Tribes surveyed in the study include members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce communities.

"Some tribal members will no longer eat fish from the Columbia River," says Pat Sobotta with the Nez Perce Tribe's Natural Resources Department. "I've heard stories of people throwing fish out of their freezers, while scientists say people don't need to do away with such an important food source."

Pollution sources still haven't been pinpointed, but Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the commission, worries that the proposed dredging of the Columbia River will stir up more contaminants (HCN, 6/24/02:A wide-angled wilderness): "Until we find out the source of the fish contamination, we don't want anything to disturb the precious environment the fish need."