Salmon v. Pesticides: A Losing Battle

Pesticides kill. That’s what they’re designed to do.

But what they kill is often a contentious matter. The agricultural pests that bug farmers are usually the prime target, but deadly chemicals can end up widely distributed throughout the environment. Along the Pacific Coast, pesticides are commonly washed into rivers where they have been shown to kill sensitive aquatic life. We’re not just talking about the little micro-organisms either. Big fish like salmon and steelhead are susceptible as well, which is why the Defenders legal team is stepping in.

Chinook salmon. Photo courtesy of USGS.

In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that several pesticides known as organophosphates were negatively impacting Pacific salmon and steelhead. Three common pesticides in particular (chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion) can kill salmon outright in addition to disrupting spawning migrations, eliminating important prey species, and making the fish more susceptible to disease. These pesticides have been found in every single water basin that was tested on the West Coast, sometimes at concentrations 1000 times higher than acceptable levels established by the government.

The NMFS “biological opinion” submitted to the EPA identified several steps to keep these compounds out of rivers where they can cause harm to salmon and steelhead habitat. Recommendations included creating a buffer of non-crop vegetation between salmon streams and farmland, and keeping pesticide applications at a safe distance from those waters. Unfortunately, the federal scientists’ biological opinion was largely ignored. Instead, EPA tried to implement weaker protections, but even those minimal safeguards were rejected by the pesticide industry. Even in the face of expert reports and declining salmon populations, major chemical manufacturers like Dow AgroSciences, Makhteshim-Agan North America and Cheminova continue to claim their products do not jeopardize fisheries.

As a result, Defenders and a coalition of conservation and fishing groups are suing EPA to force them to enact the proper safeguards needed to protect imperiled salmon and steelhead fisheries along the Pacific coast. It’s time to stand up to the pesticide producers and polluters who are putting our aquatic ecosystems at risk.

Read the full press release here and check out our fact sheet to learn more about threats to salmon nationwide.