The catching, cooking and eating of fish is central to our way of life here near the mouth of the Columbia. It thus is interesting to consider just how different Oregon and Washington are in terms of fish-consumption safety, and why.

It may be difficult to imagine how eating fish can be a contentious political issue, but it is. Powerful corporate lobbyists, Indian tribes, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and ordinary citizens are all wrapped up in this quiet, fishy controversy.

InvestigateWest (www.invw. org), an independent news operation, recently started angling for answers. What they found says a lot about the economic destinies and political cultures of our two states.

The basic fact is that fish are both highly nutritious and prone to soaking up contaminants in water and sediments. Agencies set water quality standards based on an estimate of how much fish people eat. If we don’t consume much fish, states can allow more pollution in the water.

In Oregon, water quality standards are based on estimated fish consumption of 175 grams a day – about 6 ounces, the size of a modest serving. Meanwhile, sticking with data gathered via a questionnaire in the 1970s, Washington state bases its water quality on fish consumption of 6.5 grams a day – about the weight of a single bite of salmon.

An effort to rationalize Washington fish-consumption assumptions was scuttled last year after an executive vice president of Boeing met with then-Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“It was my expectation that this was not going to be a top-tier political issue,” Ted Sturdevant, the former Washington State Department of Ecology director who tried unsuccessfully to shepherd through the changes, told InvestigateWest.

The complete story is well worth reading as a lesson in backroom deal making and politicking:

From the standpoint of public policy, it seems extraordinarily backward to stick an antiquated and obviously incorrect estimate of how much fish we eat, using this as a way to fight stricter pollution controls. Oregon updated its fish consumption estimate in 2011 as recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to account for the fact that Americans are eating more fish, and that some groups such as Native Americans eat significantly more fish than typical Americans, InvestigateWest reports. Washington resists the change, despite EPA pressure.

From the standpoint of economics, it is easy to understand Washington’s reluctance. A Boeing executive said the change would “cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and severely hamper its ability to increase production in Renton and make future expansion elsewhere in the state cost prohibitive.” Boeing employs 85,000 in the state. Its health has been a key to somewhat insulating the central Puget Sound region from the worst effects of the recession and slow recovery, with unemployment rates less than half those of Southwest Washington.

Speaking from a decidedly different perspective, a tribal leader said, “Seafood is a staple of a lot of people, as well as freshwater fish here in the Pacific Northwest. And it’s supposed to be a healthy alternative to other food sources. But how healthy is it when you’re only allowed to consume so much before you start taking on a risk of cancer and other sicknesses?”

Jobs are overtly the top priority in Washington state, a mindset that has been the case since early-settlement times. But as the fish-consumption debate makes clear, a predisposition toward favoring industry should not be permitted to sabotage an acknowledgement of objective facts.

Moving forward, Washington and the nation as a whole must find new ways to ensure personal and environmental health – and preserve good-quality jobs.

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