The study, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found enough of the so-called “bioaccumulative toxics” — chemicals that remain in the body for long periods of time — for many tribal members to worry because they eat about 20 times more shellfish than average Americans.
“We have a saying in Indian country that when the tide is out the table is set,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community.
“Right now we are coming into the springtime, and our tribal members are hitting the beaches weekly. And for this study to show that our tribal members have to limit their intake is very sad.”
The Skagit Valley Herald (subscription required):
LONE TREE BEACH — With clams squirting and seagulls calling, Mike Cladoosby and Francis Peters dug clams at low tide on a clear April afternoon.
The Swinomish Tribe members can tell story after story about harvesting shellfish all their lives, but a recently completed five-year study by tribal biologists indicates that tribal members are eating shellfish that have unhealthy levels of pollutants.
Researchers analyzed Dungeness crabs and two species of clams harvested in several sites near the reservation, and they found traces of toxic chemicals.
The chemicals found include PCBs, legal industrial chemicals, and oil and gas derivatives. One of the main chemicals found was arsenic, and a researcher said this was known to be a problem throughout the
Puget Sound, not just in waters around the Swinomish. When people consume these chemicals, they stay in tissues and can cause health problems.
But the shellfish are also a huge part of the tribe’s culture. Tribal people eat up to 20 times more shellfish than the average American.
As the Swinomish celebrate Earth Day today, they reaffirm the connections inherent in environmental health and the health of the tribe’s culture.
“We’ve learned from this study that the food we’ve relied upon for millennia may not be safe for the people who eat shellfish from the waters around our reservation,” tribe Chairman Brian Cladoosby said in a press release.
Researchers said one measure tribal members can take is to moderate how much shellfish they eat from various sites in Similk, Fidalgo and Padilla bays.
But the project leader, Jamie Donatuto, said these recommendations are completely voluntary and were not the study’s focus. “The main point was to determine the types and concentrations of toxics out there,” she said.
Another focus of the study was to gather information on how to balance a risk such as eating shellfish with the cultural benefits of eating shellfish.
“Simply not eating (shellfish) wouldn’t be acceptable because of the role shellfish plays in the Swinomish community,” Donatuto said.
Tribal elders are known to say seafood is food for the body as well as for the spirit, Donatuto added. “It’s a point of cultural identity. Tribes look at cultural health as synonymous with environmental health and physical health. They all need to be looked at together.”
After Mike Cladoosby and Peters dug a bucket of clams Friday, Swinomish elder Chester Cayou Sr. whistled. “Holy smokes, I’ve never seen ’em so big around here,” he said.
All three men have many memories of fishing and harvesting shellfish from their days as kids.
“My dad was a fisherman and a carpenter,” Cladoosby said. “I’m a fisherman and a carpenter.”
Cayou repeated an old saying: “When the tide is out, the table is set.”