August 13, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

In today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert McClure highlights a case involving a consultation under the Endangered Species Act – the very aspect of the ESA that the Bush Administration wants to slash.

EPA has approved three pesticides – chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion – for use in areas where they will affect several species of salmon that are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. A coalition of fishing and environmental groups filed a lawsuit, and U.S. District Judge John Coughenour ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a study on the pesticides’ effect on the fish. McClure describes what they found:

“Overwhelming evidence” suggests the pesticides are interfering with the ability of salmon to swim, find food, reproduce and escape bigger fish trying to eat them, says the evaluation issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service …

Small side channels where salmon are most likely to hang out when they are young are the part of the streams where pesticide concentrations tend to be highest, the study says.

For fish not killed outright, the study says, the pesticides’ tamping down of the salmon’s sense of smell is particularly important, because young salmon learn to avoid predators when they smell the blood of other young fish in the water. If they fail to pick up the scent, they get chomped, too.

The insecticides also impair the salmon’s ability to swim.

And insecticides harm salmon in another way, the study says: They kill off the insects that young fish eat. So the young fish are hungry as well as hit by toxins.

Adult salmon are affected, too. If their sense of smell is diminished, it can interfere with reproduction, because female salmon use a special odor to signal males that it’s time to excrete their sperm.

And that’s just the effects of the three pesticides addressed in this study. There are actually 37 pesticides under scrutiny for their effect on these fish, and the NMFS has just reached a settlement with plaintiffs to complete all the assessments over the next four years. Earthjustice explains:

More than five years ago, a federal court ordered EPA to consult with NMFS on the impacts that certain pesticides have on salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and California. EPA began submitting the required assessments to NMFS, but NMFS never identified the measures needed to protect salmon and steelhead from the pesticides. The federal Endangered Species Act required NMFS to complete such actions within 90 days of receiving EPA’s assessments.

Today, NMFS agreed to complete the long overdue assessments over a four-year period, with the first decisions due by October 2008. These consultations are expected to culminate in on-the-ground measures designed to reduce the amount of pesticides that run into salmon-supporting rivers and streams. It is uncertain what protective measures the government will impose. This is the first time NMFS has evaluated large-scale impacts of pesticides to salmon.

This case demonstrates that other agencies – even EPA, which we’d hope would know better – don’t always consult with the NMFS or the Fish & Wildlife Service, even when the activities they’re planning do in fact affect endangered species. It also suggests that NMFS might lack the combination of resources and will necessary to carry out all of its ESA-related duties.

There are two approaches to addressing these EPA and NMFS shortcomings. The Bush administration has evidently decided that if its agencies aren’t meeting their statutory requirements, the best response is to change the rules so that those requirements no longer exist. A better approach would be to appoint agency heads who will make sure that the agencies comply with the law, and give them the resources they need to do that job. That way, we might allow some of the many endangered species to survive – which was, of course, the intent of the Endangered Species Act in the first place.

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