Puget Sound's chinook salmon, prized by sport fishermen, tribes and endangered orcas alike, are so polluted with toxic chemicals that the...

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Puget Sound’s chinook salmon, prized by sport fishermen, tribes and endangered orcas alike, are so polluted with toxic chemicals that the state Health Department is advising that children and pregnant women limit how much they eat.

In reality, the advisory will have little effect; nearly all the chinook sold locally are caught outside Puget Sound. And most people don’t eat that much chinook.

But the very idea that Puget Sound’s iconic salmon have turned toxic has the power to generate powerful emotional reactions.

For state officials and environmentalists, the notice, released in the form of an official advisory urging children and women who might be pregnant to eat Puget Sound chinook no more than once a week, served as “another sign that Puget Sound is sick and we must take action now,” said Gov. Christine Gregoire, who is pushing for a new plan to clean up the Sound.

The fishing industry said the notice was irresponsible because it could scare people from eating salmon in general, when nearly all the salmon sold in the Puget Sound region come from Alaska.

“It’s just plain … stupid; it’s unbelievable to me,” said Glenn Reed, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “I don’t think they have any understanding of the industry or the fish that hits the market shelves.”

State health officials were left to walk a fine line between being frustrated that local fish are contaminated and wanting people to keep eating fish, including locally caught salmon.

Salmon advisory

What: The state Department of Health says it’s safe to eat two meals a week of most fish. But in the case of chinook salmon caught in Puget Sound, children, and women who might be pregnant, should eat no more than one meal a week.

What it means: Most chinook salmon sold in grocery stores in the Puget Sound area are caught in Alaska, so the warning doesn’t apply. It also doesn’t apply to other species of salmon, including coho, sockeye and chum.

What to look for: Increasingly, salmon sold in grocery stores have tags saying where they were caught. If you can’t tell, the Health Department says it’s OK to go ahead and eat up to two servings a week. But try to prepare it in a way that removes some of the PCBs: Take the skin off, for example.

For more information: For a tip sheet about what fish are safe to eat, or for information on fishing in different parts of the Sound, look online: www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/oehas/fish/default.htm

Source: Washington state Department of Health

“People should sit up and take notice,” said Rob Duff, director of the Health Department’s office of environmental-health assessments. “But sitting up and taking notice doesn’t mean removing all the great benefits that come from eating fish.”

The official advisory is based on the levels of mercury and PCBs found in tests of fish caught in Puget Sound. It also found that resident chinook, known as blackmouths, which never leave Puget Sound for the open Pacific, showed even higher contamination levels and should be eaten no more than twice a month.

The Health Department also recommends that people limit their consumption of rockfish or sole caught in some parts of Puget Sound, particularly near heavily industrialized areas such as Seattle.

Fish advisories are usually aimed at children and women who might become pregnant, because children and fetuses are considered most sensitive to the contaminants. Mercury is a brain poison. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are suspected of causing cancer and impairing brain development.

The potential health risks of the chemicals and metals in fish, particularly mercury, are hotly debated. Some studies suggest that the benefits of eating fish can outweigh the risks, while some environmentalists charge that the health risks have been downplayed.

Some health professionals worry that the latest warning could trigger an overreaction by consumers.

“I can tell you my patients and a lot of people I know, when they see an advisory about something, they say, ‘Well if there’s any risk at all, I’m just not going to eat any,’ ” said Dr. Thomas Benedetti of the University of Washington Medical School, an obstetrician who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.

Benedetti said he recommends that pregnant women eat 12 ounces of fish a week, particularly fish such as salmon that are high in healthful omega-3 fatty acids.

The biggest impact from the advisory could be among Puget Sound tribes. While wild chinook are protected under the Endangered Species Act, tribes catch tens of thousands of hatchery chinook in Puget Sound. It’s an important source of income for tribal members. And the fish are important to their culture, traditions and ceremonies.

Georgiana Kautz, the natural-resource manager for the Nisqually Tribe, is livid about the pollution in the fish. But she was also mad about the Health Department warning. “You’re still scaring people,” Kautz said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com