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Alaskans Eat Fish—Lots of It!—So Let’s Keep Their Waters Clean

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

We all know that eating fish is good for you.

Fish is low in fat and high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential nutrients. Plus yum. But when the fish you eat comes from polluted waters? It can quickly turn from healthy to harmful thanks to a buildup of toxic chemicals that can pass from fish to people.

So how we can we protect our waters from pollution and, consequently, safeguard the health of the people who eat fish?

It turns out that the U.S. already has laws on the books that keep our water clean. But in Alaska? The law isn’t working the way it should.

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Southeast Alaska Conservation Council’s former director, Malena Marvin, reflects many Alaskans’ attitude toward fish. Photo by Eric Grundberg

Here’s the deal. The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, sets limits on how much pollution is allowed in our nearshore and inland waters. In order to determine these limits, it looks at each state’s “fish consumption rate.”

Why? Because you are what you eat. Fish absorb toxins, people eat fish. People ingest toxins from fish, and public health suffers. So the more fish people eat, the less pollution is permitted in the water.

In the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) automatically set the fish consumption rate for all states at 6.5 grams of fish per person per day, but state governments can change it based on how much fish their residents actually eat. Many states have, in fact, dramatically raised their fish consumption rate to as much as 175+ grams of fish per person/day.

Alaska has not.

With Alaska’s abundant coastlines and booming seafood industry, Alaskans rely on locally-caught seafood as an integral part of their diet. Photo by Lee House
With Alaska’s abundant coastlines and booming seafood industry, Alaskans rely on locally-caught seafood as an integral part of their diet. Photo by Lee House

In a state that has more coastline than the lower 48 states combined and a $1.9 billion seafood industry, the government of Alaska still says that Alaskans eat no more than 6.5 grams of fish a day.

How much is 6.5 grams? Less than a quarter of an ounce—about the size of a Ritz cracker. Or a small strawberry. Essentially, a mouthful. This amounts to a little more than a single serving of fish per month.

I don’t know about you, but I eat a heck of a lot more fish than that. And I’m about as landlocked as you can get.

Salmon and other fish are essential to many native tribes in Alaska. Thus, indigenous residents tend to eat more fish than non-native Alaskans. Photo by Lee House
Salmon and other fish are essential to many native tribes in Alaska. Thus, indigenous residents tend to eat more fish than non-native Alaskans. Photo by Lee House

In reality, as you can probably guess, Alaskans eat a hefty amount of fish. According to regional nonprofit Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), the average Alaskan eats between 175 and 250 grams of fish/day. In other words, 6 to 8 ounces, or a normal to large serving, daily. Indigenous residents tend toward the upper end of that range since fish, particularly salmon, play a crucial role in many tribes’ cultural heritage.

That’s 2,600% to 3,700% more fish than the State of Alaska currently allots.

With Alaska’s fish consumption rate set artificially low at a laughable 6.5 grams per person/day, the EPA could allow harmful, unnecessary pollution into Alaska’s clean waters, threatening the health of marine ecosystems and the state’s fish-eating residents.

SEACC, through its Inside Passage Waterkeeper (IPK) program, is working hard to shed light on this problem. With support from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, IPK recently produced a documentary called We Eat Fish!

Filmmakers traveled all over Southeast Alaska to interview indigenous residents, parents of young children, commercial fishermen, and marine biology experts. The resulting 26-minute film (above), along with a shorter 7-minute version, highlights the importance of clean water to the health and vitality of Southeast Alaska.

To further spread awareness, IPK created an accompanying action kit, which includes a fact sheet and petition, and has shown the documentary at public events ranging from local food festivals in Juneau and Sitka to the statewide Alaska Tribal Conference on Environmental Management.

The goal? To garner enough public support to compel officials to increase Alaska’s fish consumption rate to a more realistic 175 grams of fish per person/day. By adjusting the fish consumption rate—and other variables in the EPA’s formula under the Clean Water Act—officials can ensure that Alaska’s clean waters remain fishable, swimmable, and drinkable for generations to come.

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By keeping Alaska’s waters clean, the EPA is protecting not only marine ecosystems, but keeping fish—and people—healthy. Photo by Lee House

Inside Passage Waterkeeper has already made notable strides toward achieving its goal.

The We Eat Fish! campaign has heightened the awareness of the EPA Region 10 Administrator and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the latter of which has utilized a higher fish consumption rate of 142.5 grams of fish per person/day in recent site-specific permitting decisions.

While that’s a step in the right direction, Alaska’s waters are still vulnerable to pollution since the official fish consumption rate remains unchanged.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has been working on the issue, but is still years away from making any kind of changes to the state’s fish consumption value, which remains among the lowest in the nation. SEACC’s Inside Passage Waterkeeper would like to see incremental adjustments made sooner.

How can you help? By signing IPK’s petition to the state of Alaska and the EPA, asking them to raise Alaska’s fish consumption rate now and protect its waters from pollution.

Alaska has some of the cleanest water in the United States—let’s keep it that way. Too often it seems, officials wait and watch as problems grow bigger and bigger and only concede to act once things are out of control. We can’t let that happen in Alaska. The stakes are too high. We need to demand action now, before current regulations allow pollution levels to rise. Then it will be too late.

Updated on November 4, 2016, to acknowledge that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA are aware that Alaska’s fish consumption rate is too low and are working on the issue.

If you would like to learn more about Inside Passage Waterkeeper, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.

Comments

  1. Leland Hinton
    Washington state
    November 8, 2016, 12:59 pm

    Worried about the pollution going into our waters, let’s keep then clean!

  2. Robert Shaw
    Juneau, Alaska
    October 23, 2016, 1:42 am

    175 grams of fish per day per person is a much more realistic amount.