Less sodium sulfite in fish-egg bait will save young salmon

Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission adopts compromise that will reduce toxic levels rather than ban the toxin altogether

Fewer young salmon and steelhead will die after eating cured roe now that Oregon fish managers and Northwest industries have worked out an agreement to reduce toxic sodium sulfite in cures used to prepare roe for bait.

Meeting Thursday in the coastal city of Seaside, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission narrowly opted not to impose a ban on the use of sodium sulfite, which has been added to commercial egg cures since 1980 as a mold-inhibitor. Recent studies have shown the cures kill young fish that eat it.

Instead of an outright ban, the commission accepted a deal brokered between state fish biologists and industry leaders that will lead to reductions in sodium sulfite to levels that research suggests will kill far fewer than 10 percent of the young salmon that eat it — a level deemed to be an acceptable risk.

Under the agreement, by Oct. 1 all cured roe, as well as compounds used to cure sport-caught eggs at home, must meet the new threshold. The eggs and cure also will be labeled "For Use in Oregon" when sold in stores.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife support this approach, which includes a requirement that bait companies certify that their cures meet these new thresholds.

ODFW and the cure industry also will undertake a public outreach effort aimed at anglers and retailers on how to properly mix eggs and cures to keep sodium sulfite levels down, as well as use of nontoxic alternatives such as borax.

The cures are used widely by anglers targeting adult salmon and steelhead in Oregon rivers, which are home to juvenile salmon that also munch on the popular baits.

The commission vote was 3-2, with Commissioners Michael Finley of Medford and Bob Webber of Port Orford supporting a ban on sodium sulfite.

Commissioners Bobby Levy, Dan Edge and Holly Akenson voted in favor of the voluntary plan. Commissioner Jon Englund, president of Englund Marine Supply, abstained, and Commissioner Skip Klarquist was absent.

ODFW has identified eight companies that make egg cures sold in Oregon.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Portland-based Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said the agreement was unprecedented and that it represents a good way to solve a fish-resource issue without legislating an outright ban.

"We feel like this is the better approach," Hamilton said. "Everybody involved in fishing wants to make sure we're doing the right thing. People do put the resource first."

Charlie Corrarino, ODFW's conservation and recovery program manager, said the change puts Oregon in the lead in curbing toxicity in fish baits.

"I think most anglers want to do the right thing, and I think most anglers will respond to the information we have accordingly," Corrarino said before Thursday's meeting.

Angling groups in 2008 approached ODFW biologists with concerns that cured salmon eggs used as bait were killing juvenile salmon and steelhead.

Preliminary tests done that year supported anglers' concerns, and a more comprehensive study by ODFW and Oregon State University showed that significant numbers of young salmon and steelhead smolts and pre-smolts died after ingesting commercially produced cures that contain sodium sulfite.

ODFW managers met with egg-cure companies and asked them to consider eliminating sodium sulfite, and industry leaders countered with a request to find a reduced level that would be acceptable.

ODFW researchers further analyzed the data and decided that a maximum concentration of 12 grams of sodium sulfite per kilogram of eggs would likely result in an acceptable level of risk, according to the ODFW.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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