PANNA: Salmon May Get Pesticide Buffers


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Salmon May Get Pesticide Buffers
October 31, 2003

Within a few weeks, new restrictions will be announced on applications of 43 pesticide active ingredients near creeks and rivers in Washington, Oregon, and California. The regulations are expected to call for buffer zones along streams that are used by threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead. The salmon protections will be ordered by a federal court in Seattle in response to a lawsuit filed by Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Washington Toxics Coalition, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. Plaintiffs in the case were represented by Earthjustice.

In July 2002 a Seattle federal court judge found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) had violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by not consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the risks to salmon in 54 pesticide registration actions for chemicals that “according to U.S. EPA’s own reports, pose potentially significant risks to threatened and endangered salmon and their habitat.”

Fish are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure because they absorb pesticides dissolved in water through their skin and gills as well as ingesting pesticides in their diet. The U.S. Geological Survey has found pesticides in salmon and steelhead streams at levels associated with adverse impacts on fish and their habitat. Pesticides can interfere with salmon’s ability to transition from freshwater to seawater, impair swimming ability, and cause abnormal sexual development or skeletal deformities. Pesticides also change the aquatic environment, reducing the food supply and eliminating the vegetative cover young salmon need. Recent NMFS research indicates that even low levels of pesticides can damage salmon’s ability to smell, which can impair their ability to detect predators, hone in on spawning locations, or pick up the scent of an ovulating female.

In 1989, NMFS listed the first salmon species–the Sacramento winter run Chinook–under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). During the 1990s an additional 25 salmonids were listed under the ESA. Dramatic salmon and steelhead population declines during this period are commonly attributed to dams and widespread habitat loss, and little consideration given to the long term impact of increasing use of agricultural chemicals along Northwest river systems.

The lawsuit asked the court to order U.S. EPA to consult with NMFS to determine if legal applications of pesticides are harming salmon and steelhead. The suit then demanded immediate protective action such as restricting pesticide use near waterways and banning use of pesticides that kill salmon, degrade aquatic habitat, or destroy salmon food sources. The suit also asked the court to ensure that educational information be available to the purchasers of pesticides regarding the hazards of eight pesticides known to harm salmon which are frequently detected in urban streams.

At the conclusion of an August 2003 hearing, the court asked the environmental plaintiffs, U.S. EPA, and defendant intervenor CropLife America (a trade organization representing chemical companies, users, manufacturers, and applicators) to negotiate the size of ground and aerial buffer zones needed for interim protection for salmon and steelhead. Previously, U.S. EPA has recommended minimum buffers of 100 yards for aerial spraying and 20 yards for ground spraying in voluntary, county-by-county plans. It is possible that the final relief ordered by the judge will be similar to those standards.

A ruling from the judge is expected any day, with plans for the salmon protections to be in place by November 30, 2003. Just in time for the winter salmon runs.

Sources: Press Release, Northern Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), July 17, 2003,; NCAP List of 54 Pesticides,; PANUPS: “Lawsuit to Protect Salmon from Pesticides,”; Pesticide Action Network (PANNA), February 1, 2001,; PAN Pesticides Database: Aquatic Ecotoxicity of the 13 common urban pesticides,; Press Release, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle PI), August 1, 2000,; Press Release, Seattle Times,, August 15, 2003; Species information for Endangered, Threatened and Candidate Species of Anadromous and Marine Fishes: Pacific coast salmon species, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS),

Contact: Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides,, 541-344-5044 Fax 541-344-6923; PANNA.

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