Swinomish tribal leaders are advising members to restrict their consumption of clams and crabs gathered in and around their reservation...

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Swinomish tribal leaders are advising members to restrict their consumption of clams and crabs gathered in and around their reservation — two of their most traditional foods — after a recent study found that they contain toxic chemicals.

The study, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found enough of the so-called “bioaccumulative toxics” — chemicals that remain in the body for long periods of time — for many tribal members to worry because they eat about 20 times more shellfish than average Americans.

“We have a saying in Indian country that when the tide is out the table is set,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community.

“Right now we are coming into the springtime, and our tribal members are hitting the beaches weekly. And for this study to show that our tribal members have to limit their intake is very sad.”

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The study drew samples from traditional gathering places in Padilla, Fidalgo and Skagit bays and in water near Samish Island. It also included the tribe’s 2,900 acres of tidelands on the reservation, just outside La Conner in Skagit County. The tribe shares the air and watershed with oil refineries in Anacortes, a chemical plant and farms. Scientists tested for a witch’s brew of chemicals, including heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and chlorinated pesticides.

All of those chemicals have been linked to serious, long-term health effects, including immune-system suppression, endocrine disruption and reproductive impairment.

The tribe has issued voluntary limits of up to three meals a week of shellfish from the sampled beaches, depending on the eaters’ age. The limits are considered temporary until the tribe can come up with a long-term solution.

The limits don’t apply to shellfish harvested for commercial or recreational purposes, because that wouldn’t lead to enough consumption to be at risk.

The risk posed by eating the shellfish assumes daily consumption over a lifetime of 70 years lived continuously at the reservation.

The new advisory limit is generally within the average consumption of most tribal members, said Jamie Donatuto, project director. But more-frequent shellfish eaters may have to cut back. And that may hurt.

For many tribal members, shellfish are more than food for the body; they are food for the spirit, Cladoosby said. He grieved that food that has sustained his people for thousands of years could now imperil them.

“It’s a part of our culture,” Cladoosby said. “And any time any culture loses any part of its identity it’s like losing a part of their soul.”

The study has motivated the tribe to do more work in other areas. A consultant is now trying to determine how much seafood the Swinomish ate historically, in part to assess what was guaranteed to them by the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott.

The tribe is also crafting its own definition of health to use in the cost-benefit analysis of gauging risk. Limiting consumption means limiting the social, cultural, and spiritual benefits of the act of gathering itself, Donatuto said. Those benefits could, in some instances, outweigh the risks of contamination.

The study found that many tribal members have already been cutting back on shellfish, some because of concern about pollution.

Cladoosby said he hopes to work with industries, farmers and others to clean up the water for the long term.

“This study tells us Puget Sound is sick,” Cladoosby said. “And we are the cause.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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