Amber Lenhart

Project title: A Community-Based Assessment of Urban Subsistence Fishing in Seattle, Washington

Degree: MPH | Program: Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) | Project type: Project
Completed in: 2013 | Faculty advisor: William E. Daniell


Background: In February 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposed plan to clean up the Lower Duwamish Waterway (LDW) Superfund Site in Seattle, Washington. To address the potential unintended health impacts of the EPA’s cleanup plan on local residents, affected tribes, subsistence fishers, and workers in local industries, the University of Washington, in partnership with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group and Just Health Action, conducted a Health Impact Assessment.   A variety of individuals rely on the LDW for subsistence fishing.  Little is currently known about these subsistence fishers, and identifying their potential health impacts would be difficult without a clear picture of the culture, behaviors, and needs of this population.  The findings from this research project informed the recommendations of the Health Impact Assessment of the EPA’s cleanup plan.

Methods: A community-based research project was conducted with local fishing communities to 1) characterize the diverse urban subsistence fishing population potentially affected by the LDW Superfund Site cleanup, and 2) identify culturally-appropriate opportunities to discourage fishing for resident fish and shellfish on the Duwamish River while promoting safe and healthful fishing alternatives during and after the cleanup. Demographic surveys, semi-structured key informant interviews, and focus groups provided demographic data and qualitative information about reasons for fishing and reactions to possible alternatives to institutional control fishing advisories.
Results: Focus group participants and key informants identified cultural, traditional, and economic reasons for fishing. Reasons for fishing varied by community, and ranged from catching fish as a source of food to spending time with friends and family to stress-relief and contact with nature.  Many participants valued the act of fishing over actually catching a fish.  Most participants traveled to many urban fishing locations, choosing locations that were culturally-important, accessible, convenient, safe, and visually appealing.  Many participants were concerned about contamination in fish, but misconceptions were common.  Some participants worried that eating contaminated fish would cause food poisoning.  Many believed that they could detect contaminated water and fish using their senses.  Few participants had seen or read posted fishing advisories.

Conclusions: Findings from focus group discussions and key informant interviews suggest that there is a need for creative, novel approaches to minimize harms and maximize benefits of fish consumption in these communities.  Reactions to alternatives to institutional controls were mixed, suggesting a need for innovative thinking about how to discourage fishing for resident fish and shellfish on the Duwamish River and how to promote safe and healthful fishing alternatives.