EPA Takes Action to Protect Pacific Salmon From Pesticides

Olivia Rosane
Aug. 25, 2021

salmon struggle up small waterfall

Extreme heat waves have made this a devastating summer for the endangered salmon species of the U.S. West Coast. In mid July, California wildlife officials warned that almost all of the young Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River would likely die because of lower water levels and higher water temperatures.

Weeks later, a conservation group further north shared disturbing footage of sockeye salmon breaking out in lesions and fungal infections when water temperatures in the Columbia River topped 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

But, amidst all the catastrophic headlines was a cool spring of good news. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally acting to protect more than two dozen endangered West Coast salmon and steelhead species from pesticides.

“For the first time, Pacific salmon will be protected by on-the-ground conservation measures to limit pesticide pollution into our rivers and streams,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “This is a great start, but the EPA has still failed to act on hundreds of other deadly pesticides that continue to harm these iconic wildlife species. The agency needs to build on this success and enact similar protections to ensure salmon have a future in the West.”

Common Sense Measures

The EPA first announced that it was taking the steps July 9, in response to two biological opinions from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the impact that the pesticides 1,3-D and metolachlor and bromoxynil and prometryn had on 28 federally listed endangered and threatened species of Pacific salmon and steelhead in Washington, Oregon and California. 1,3-D is used in the soil to control nematodes, wireworms, and symphylans while metolachlor, bromoxynil and prometryn are all herbicides. All of them are currently applied using rates and methods that have the potential to enter aquatic ecosystems at concentrations that would cause harm to the plants and animals that live there, especially in shallow waters near where the pesticides are used.

“Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill things, that is their purpose,” CBD Environmental Health Program director and senior attorney Lori Ann Burd told EcoWatch. “And so it’s no surprise that they kill things other than the things that they are designed to kill.”

In this case, the biological opinions concluded that the registered uses of the pesticides in question did not represent an extinction risk for the endangered species or threaten to destroy their critical habitats, an EPA spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. However, they could have sublethal impacts on the salmon themselves and reduce the amount of prey available to them.

Therefore, “the biological opinions also describe reasonable and prudent measures to minimize unintentional harm or death that could result from use of these pesticides to individuals of these listed species and their critical habitats,” the EPA wrote in its announcement.

Those measures include no-spray buffers, retention ponds and the ability for pesticide users to participate in regional stewardship programs.

“These are common sense measures,” Burd told Ecowatch.

Pesticides generally are a problem for salmon for several reasons and can have a variety of impacts depending on the chemical involved. They can disrupt the endocrine system, harm their reproductive ability or disorient salmon, making it harder for them to migrate successfully. They are also only one of several problems facing salmon currently, including dams, ocean acidification and the drought and higher water temperatures associated with the climate crisis. However, the fact of these other problems does not make them less urgent to address, wildlife advocates say.

For one thing, pesticides can interact with these other stressors to make life more difficult for salmon. For example, their presence can actually make water hotter.