Final Report: Bioaccumulative Toxics in Native American Shellfish

EPA Grant Number: R829467
Title: Bioaccumulative Toxics in Native American Shellfish
Investigators: Basabe, Felix Anthony
Institution: Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: March 15, 2002 through March 14, 2006 (Extended to August 28, 2006)
Project Amount: $1,170,389
RFA: Environmental Justice: Partnerships for Communication (2000) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Global Climate Change , Tribal Environmental Health Research , Environmental Justice , Health


The Swinomish Tribe received a four-year EPA grant in 2002 to assess the accumulation of toxics in the shellfish and sediment in some of the areas traditionally harvested by Swinomish tribal members. The initial goals of the project were:

  1. To determine whether Swinomish people are exposed to low level, chronic bioaccumulative toxics when participating in subsistence gathering and consumption of shellfish;
  2. To communicate any identified health risks to the community in a culturally appropriate manner;
  3. To develop mitigation options;
  4. To identify major health issues on the Reservation that may be related to eating contaminated shellfish, and develop hypotheses between Swinomish health problems and toxics found.

This project was directed and implemented by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Planning Department. The project has a technical advisory board, composed of technical experts in a variety of fields, and a tribal advisory board, composed of representatives of several regional tribes.

The initial proposal called for an internal evaluation to be conducted by the project manager. The decision was made to engage an external evaluator from the Office of Educational Assessment (OEA) at the University of Washington in a participatory evaluation approach.

The primary goal of the evaluation was to provide constructive and accurate information to the project staff that may validate what the staff already knows, and perhaps, provide some additional insight that may be useful for program improvement. The OEA strives to offer an outside perspective of the project’s effectiveness in accomplishing its goals. The evaluation focuses on the project’s processes and procedures – how the goals are accomplished, as well as the project’s outcomes and impacts – how the project has affected the community. The evaluation team and the project manager worked together to develop a two-part evaluation.

Part one, the mid-term evaluation, focused on the development and implementation of the processes and procedures to conduct the work of the grant. Information was gathered from review of project materials and semi-structured key informant interviews. Project materials included project files and reports. One telephone interview was conducted with a project staff member and in-person interviews were conducted with five project staff and one Tribal Senate representative. Two in-person interviews were conducted with representatives of the tribal advisory board, and one telephone interview and three in-person interviews were conducted with representatives of the technical advisory board. This report was completed in January 2005.

Part two, the final evaluation, focused on the dissemination to the community of information about the findings from the study, including any risks of consumption associated with seafood gathered from local waters or specific locations.


This report is based on several sources of information:

  • A brief community survey was administered in both electronic and paper format;
  • Attendance and observation at the Native Lens film premiere and in person interviews with five Swinomish community members conducted after the screening;
  • A video recording of the Tribal Senate meeting in which the project final results and recommendations were presented;
  • Selected information extracted from the initial report of the 76 individual interviews to complete the Seafood Diet Interviews (the Swinomish version of a fish consumption survey), analyzed and provided by project staff;
  • Written material and responses to questions provided by project staff;
  • Observation of the final meeting of the project’s Technical Advisory Board;
  • Project material available on the Tribal website;
  • The mid-term evaluation report.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):


Dissemination Strategies

Many of the mid-term interviewees discussed issues related to community education and broader dissemination of the study findings. One theme that emerged consistently in those interviews was the challenge of balancing the culturally important incorporation of high levels of seafood consumption – consumption levels that several remarked are a treaty right – and managing health risks if the water and the shellfish harvested from it are found to be contaminated. Several mid-term evaluation interviewees explained that this project is at the intersection of public health, policies governing water quality standards, and the enforcement of related treaty rights.

Text Box: Challenges and rewards of information sharing

When asked whether the message from the study is expected to evolve, project staff explained that they are continuing to work on an alternative framework for assessing health, risks, and impacts, taking into consideration the Swinomish model of good health, which includes not only physical well-being, but mental, social, and cultural well-being as well. Current risk assessment frameworks only focus on physical health, ignoring the many other interconnected aspects of health that the Swinomish believe must be assessed together.

Project staff emphasized the critical importance of the dissemination component of the project, first within the Swinomish community, then with other tribes who are facing similar situations, and then with the broader scientific, governmental and academic communities.

Staff reported using a number of strategies to keep the community informed about the study as it progressed, and to share findings about the level of contamination at various collection sites, and recommendations about harvesting and consumption practices. A comprehensive list of dissemination activities are presented in Appendix I. They will be summarized here.

Local Community Dissemination Efforts

Print media: Project staff reported that they have submitted monthly articles on the BTNAS project to the Tribal newspaper, Kee-yoks. The purpose of these articles has been to inform the community of the purpose of the project and to keep the community updated as to project accomplishments and findings, such as harvesting recommendations and suggestions on how to prepare foods in ways that minimize consumption of contaminants. In addition, the Skagit Valley Herald, the regional newspaper, has written three articles about the project. These articles have focused on basic introductory project information, project progress after it was underway, and the project’s outreach and educational activities. A press release regarding the findings and conclusion of the project, is in preparation, and will be submitted to the paper in December.

SWN96 Cable Television Station: Project staff noted that the cable station has aired the harvesting site recommendation maps, and consumption recommendations submitted by project staff.

Swinomish Tribal Website ( Project staff reported that the harvesting recommendation maps have been posted to the website, as well as the consumption recommendations. Additionally, the website contains links to several conference abstracts.

Community Presentations: Project staff reported that they have presented information about the project in several community venues, including Tribal Senate meetings, Health Education and Social Services (HESS) Committee meetings, and Cultural Resources Committee meetings. Staff noted that since Senators and Committee members are all community members, presentations to these bodies began the process of dissemination into the community.

Text Box: Dissemination plans in the mid-term

Staff also reported presentations delivered to both children and adults, both on the reservation and off the reservation in the local communities and at gatherings. Presentations focus on the BTNAS project specifically, as well as on more general information about toxics in the environment.

Project staff also reported that they have participated in the Swinomish Community Health Fair, providing available project information, and will continue to do so. In addition, staff reported that they have conducted a special workshop at the Swinomish Health Clinic to educate the health care providers about toxics in the seafood and to provide harvest and consumption guidelines indicated by the research.

Material Produced to Distribute in the Community: Project staff reported the development of a pamphlet for distribution to community members at the health clinic and other locations. The pamphlet contains harvesting and consumption recommendations, as well as healthier seafood preparation techniques. Additionally, the project has commissioned the creation and distribution of artwork promoting the consumption of seafood and conveying the message that community members should continue to eat seafood that is harvested from the cleaner sites because the benefits outweigh the risks. The artwork includes a magnet bearing the artwork and message at right to be distributed at the health clinic and at the Swinomish Health Fair, and the book 13 Moons, showing the traditional thirteen moon harvest cycle, what is harvested with each moon, and each moon’s name in the native Lushootseed language. The purpose of this book is to support the importance of traditional foods in the practices and diets of the Swinomish people.

Community Gatherings: Project staff described a traditional beach bake for Swinomish community members held in August 2006 at one of the cleaner harvesting locations. This gathering was used as an opportunity to bring Tribal members together to share traditional food (clams, oysters, and mussels baked in the pit style, as well as other seafood, including crab and salmon) and to share study findings. Project staff reported that the 125 participants were happy both to be part of a community gathering, as well as to have the seafood which, staff reported, is difficult for some to access, especially many elders. The purpose of the beach bake was to bring together the community and communicate the results of the study in a culturally appropriate way, and to demonstrate some preparation techniques that help avoid contamination.

Text Box: In a report to the Senate

The project manager is also considering other traditional food-related events meant to bring the community together with special roles for both the children and the elders.

Native Lens Film Premiere: Staff explained that the BTNAS project initially supported Native Lens to tell the youths’ stories about their connection with the environment and their culture. Nine students, ages 13-16, honed their video production skills through creating a series of short films called “Swinville.” They then created a series of environmental education-based public service announcements (PSAs) aimed at the Swinomish Community. The PSAs aired on the Swinomish cable channel, SWN96. Three Native Lens youths then created a 20-minute documentary, Slow Burn, on the history of March Point, an area of land located directly north of the Reservation, currently occupied by petrochemical refineries. Slow Burn premiered at the Lincoln Theater in February 2006 in Mt. Vernon, Washington (see poster at left). The audience response was overwhelmingly positive and the three youths are currently working to create a full length feature of the film.

Text Box: On the history and philosophy of Native Lens

When one of the speakers remarked, “We don’t allow smoking where it can affect non-smokers. Shouldn’t that apply to industry too?” the audience responded by standing and offering a long applause.

The premiere was used as a data gathering opportunity. The evaluator estimated between 150 and 200 attendees; ticket sales indicated between 250 and 300. Project staff noted that the majority of the audience was from the Swinomish Community.

Seafood Diet Interviews (Swinomish version of a fish consumption study): Tribal members were hired to visit 76 Tribal community households and interview household members about their seafood gathering and consumption patterns – what they eat, how much, how often, how it’s prepared, and any effect of season. Additionally, interviewees were asked their impressions about changes in diet over time and the importance of seafood to Tribal members. Although the primary purpose of these interviews was to gather both quantitative and qualitative data about Tribal seafood consumption, it also served as an outreach activity, raising the awareness of the project and issues related to consumption of local seafood among the interviewees and others in the community with whom the interviewees may have discussed the interview.

Text Box: Getting and Giving Information

Dissemination Efforts Beyond The Community

Conferences or Meetings: Project staff has presented this project at 25 public forums for the larger community, both regionally and nationally. Regional conferences/meetings include local gatherings of nontribal community members such as the Skagit Marine Resources Committee and the Skagit Beachwatchers, and regional conferences such as the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Conference. National venues have included the meetings of the American Public Health Association, the Society for Risk Analysis, and the Society for Applied Anthropology.

Tribal Advisory Board Presentations: Project staff report also making ongoing presentations to the project’s Tribal Advisory Board in an effort to get the word out to other Puget Sound area tribes. In addition, staff reports that a copy of the risk report and a final video will be distributed to all members of the Tribal Advisory Board.

Community Survey

A brief survey was conducted of community members in September and October 2006 to learn more about the effectiveness of community education and its impact. Respondents had the option of using an electronic version of the survey or a paper version. To encourage participation, respondents were entered into a drawing for a gift certificate at a local department store.

Thirty-two individuals responded to the community survey. Twenty of the respondents (63%) were Swinomish community members; ten are not community members and two are not known. Not quite half (44%) of these responses were online, and the others were paper surveys collected at the Tribal administration buildings. Of the 14 surveys that were completed online, 12 were completed by Tribal employees.

Additional demographic questions were asked of the 14 online respondents. These respondents, 64% of whom were women, reported an average household size of between three and four individuals (3.4). One person reported living alone and two reported having six household members. Eight of these 14 (57%) reported having at least one child at home, with seven (50%) reporting at least one child between the ages of five and 18. Three reported having pre-schoolers at home. Most of the household members were adults between the ages of 19 and 50, with an average of 2.1 individuals in this age range living in the households.

Of the 32 respondents, 30 (94%) had heard about the BTNAS project. Respondents were given a list of possible information sources and asked to check all the places where they heard about it. Figure 1 shows that nearly half of the respondents have heard about the project from a Tribal employee. Nearly as many (44%) checked Kee-yoks.

The eight individuals who checked “other” filled in the following responses:

  • HESS Meeting
  • Skagit Valley Herald
  • A little bi-valve told me about it
  • Senate meeting (2)
  • From processing when [serving as a temporary employee for the Tribe]
  • Tribal Internet

Respondents were asked whether the project had affected them and given options to check, including “other,” with the instruction to “check all that apply.” Figure 2 summarizes the responses. The most frequently selected choices were “I started thinking about pollution in the local waters more” and “I learned the places NOT to gather local shellfish. About one third indicated that the project has not affected them. One of these selected “other” and noted that s/he had not yet seen the results of the project. Another wrote in: “Know toxins in crab gills/organs & not meat.”

When comparing the results of the written Community Survey with those of the in person Seafood Diet Interviews, it is important to remember the differences. First, the Seafood Diet Interviews were conducted in the context of a fairly lengthy conversation during a visit to the respondents’ homes. Second, the Seafood Diet Interviews asked participants to consider broadly the local environment and the use of local seafood in their responses while the Community Survey specifically targeted the impact of the BTNAS project. With those considerations, the responses on the Community Survey corresponded well with comments gathered during the household interviews for the Seafood Diet Interviews. For example, many of the household interviewees (83%) confirmed that they think about or hear about pollution in the local waters, listing red tide, toxic chemicals, sewage and septic, boats, mills, oil and gas, refineries, logging, agriculture, fish farms, and garbage. Although this figure is higher than the percentage of survey respondents saying they “Started thinking about pollution in the local waters more,” the 42% who check this item were agreeing that the BTNAS project led them to think about it more than they had before. About half of the household interviewees (54%) said that they worry about whether or not it is safe to eat fish, while 19% of the written survey respondents indicated that one of the effects of the BTNAS project is that they started to worry about eating local shellfish where they didn’t worry before. (Thus, the 54% figure may have been lower before the BTNAS project.)

The diversity of responses in the Community Survey to the BTNAS study findings deserves some attention.

  • Change in practice: Seven individuals (23% of the respondents) indicated a change in their seafood consumption practices as a result of the study: two said they eat less shellfish now; three said they now clean their crab before eating it; and three said they get their shellfish from safer places now.
  • More positive: Ten individuals (32%) indicated that the information they heard had a positive effect: it made them feel more secure to know that their shellfish are OK to eat. None of the respondents indicated that this translated into eating more shellfish. An additional individual indicated in a comment field that he or she feels ok about eating crab and would not if high levels of toxins had been discovered in the crab. This individual brings the “more positive” responses to 11 (35%). The household interviews for the Seafood Diet Interviews may have uncovered other reasons for reduced consumption, including reduced access to seafood (71%) or lower availability of it (55%), or convenience of (58%) and preference for other options – especially among younger respondents (57%).
  • More information: Fourteen individuals (45%) reported that as a result of the BTNAS project, they have more knowledge about where to gather local shellfish and where NOT to. Eight individuals noted both effects.
  • More concern: Fifteen individuals (48%) checked one or two of the items indicating a greater concern. These include starting to think more about pollution in the local waters, starting to worry about eating local shellfish and not worrying before, or just eating less shellfish.

It is difficult to differentiate how much of this diversity is due to differences between people in how they receive the same information, and how much is due to different information being transmitted. With about half of the respondents hearing about the project from a Tribal employee, it is possible that some of these respondents received different information or different interpretations, leading to their diverse responses.

An analysis comparing the reported impact with the source of the information revealed very few relationships. Those who indicated that they were now eating less shellfish indicated that they heard about the project in Kee-yoks; however, the other 12 individuals who said they heard about it in the Kee-yoks did not report that they are eating less shellfish. Nevertheless, it may be advisable to consider very carefully how the study results are delivered to community members, especially in non-interactive media.

Respondents were given an opportunity to provide any additional feedback. Eleven (32%) did so. In addition to one individual expressing an unmet desire for study results, another three indicated interest in the project in general with these comments:

  • I appreciate the information, it was/is very informative. Will you be studying how these toxins affect us and any diseases (a woman who heard about the project from a Tribal employee).
  • The information given has been very beneficial to so many people. I don't live on the reservation, and told others of the information (a woman who heard about the project from a Tribal employee).
  • I think it's great that research is being done & information is being passed on to the community (a woman who read about the project in Kee-yoks).

Seven individuals were coded as expressing thanks or encouragement. The first two in the list above received this code, as did two simple “Thanks.” Others are included below:

  • I am very grateful for the information available from the Tribal Test Project (a man who read about the project in Kee-yoks).
  • Glad to know the tribe has a program to keep us safe. Thanks for all your hard work (a person who read about the project in Kee-yoks).
  • It's a good thing to know. Keep up the good work! (Another person who read about the project in Kee-yoks).

The final coding category was “positive comments.” All but one of these comments also received one of the above codes. The unique comment was:

  • Feel ok about eating crab. Wouldn't if high toxins crab meat.

Qualitative Sources Inform Evaluation Questions

Opinions About Health Of The Environment And The Seafood In It

Five attendees at the premiere of the Native Lens film Slow Burn responded to these questions. All five interviewees are Swinomish Tribal members and four of them live on the reservation. Four said that they believe the air and water to be polluted and one said that he believed the quality overall is pretty good with some exceptions. When asked about the health of the seafood, two interviewees commented that the quantity had diminished over the years. One of these added that the quality had remained good, with the exception of crab collected in a few specific locations. The other commented that the habitat for the seafood had been damaged, in turn harming the health and quality of the seafood. This individual added, “You fix the habitat, you fix the fish. And it’s as simple as that.” The interviewee who lived off the reservation didn’t know about the quality of the seafood and the other two felt that it was “very poor,” or hurt by the pollution.

Text Box: Health of the environment and seafood

In the household interviews for the Seafood Diet Interviews, 46 interviewees (61%) said that more seafood was available and harvested in the past and several species were listed that had disappeared from the common diet, including sea urchins, slippers, sea cucumbers, flounders, cod, geoduck, octopus, mussels, oysters, seaweed, smelt, sturgeon, and rock fish. Although some (17%) said that they currently eat the same amount as when they were children, six of every ten (62%) said that they ate more seafood as a child than they do now and 60 (79%) remarked that seafood consumption was higher yet in previous generations. Fifty-four people (71%) said they would like to eat more seafood than they do now – another eight said that they already eat a lot, adding up to 82% of the sample remarking that they either currently consume seafood at a high rate, or they would like to do so. Interviewees also remarked that current seafood consumption by Native people is higher than that of other subgroups, raising the question of the impact of that level of ingestion on health risks.

Text Box: Health of the environment and seafood

During the mid-term evaluation, several interviewees explained that policies governing water quality standards were set without the traditionally high consumption levels of the Native people or other subgroups in mind. If a lower level of consumption is assumed, higher levels of contaminants will be considered acceptable. When contaminant levels are relatively high, a person, or an entire culture consuming at a significantly higher rate may be receiving a dose that is high enough to pose an unacceptable risk. Further, mid-term interviewees explained that the accepted standards of water quality as well as other factors have led to the currently diminished quantity and quality of seafood, which supports only a suppressed level of consumption among the Native people, and contributes to a change in cultural practices.

The reasons given for the decline in consumption are multiple. Some (55%) mentioned the lower availability that two of the interviewees at the Slow Burn premiere noted, or less access, possibly due to loss of harvesting locations or equipment, more regulations, or loss of food sharing networks (71%). When the study finding that March Point was too contaminated for safe harvesting of seafood was presented to the Tribal Senate, one of the older Senators remarked that that was one of the prime harvesting locations 30 years ago. Only eight people (11%) attributed this decline to pollution, although both of the more commonly mentioned barriers, lower availability and less access) could be the result of pollution.

Importantly, another type of reason was prevalent. Forty-four people (58% of the sample) mentioned the convenience of buying food at the store rather than harvesting it (perhaps a particularly persuasive reason in the face of reduced availability and access), and about the same percentage (57%) commented on changes in food preference, especially the younger respondents.

Recommended Strategies for Community Dissemination

Project staff developed several ideas for getting the information out to the community, as described above. Two of the individuals who were interviewed at the Native Lens premiere remarked on the value of word of mouth for disseminating information throughout the community, with one person suggesting that someone visit door to door with an informational pamphlet. Two interviewees thought that a print medium would be very effective, mentioning Kee-yoks and the Skagit Valley Herald. One mentioned the community cable channel and another mentioned the Tribe’s website. Two people noted both the draw and the impact of the event’s premiere by Native Lens, with one commenting that the event’s strong turnout was because people were supporting the kids who produced the film, and would do so again. This person also suggested engaging elders in getting the information out to the community. The other remarked on the effectiveness of the premiere venue for reaching many people at once. This person also alluded to an interesting distinction between passive and active education strategies. This individual identified different ways of getting information from the Tribal offices, but acknowledged that those strategies would serve only those people who came looking for the information. In contrast, the film premiere educated the audience without their having to develop an initial curiosity.

Text Box: How to get the word out

This is related to another point made by one of the interviewees. This person remarked that it is difficult to respond well to the question “Is there any other information you’d like or do you have any questions about our environment and seafood?” without an initial basic education about the issues. This person advocated continuing efforts to educate the public about general issues so that they will be better prepared to ask good, educated questions.

Text Box: How to get the word out

Comments About Broader Dissemination and Consequential Project Implications

Although project staff reports several dissemination activities in the broader community, both with regional Tribes and in the broader scientific community, few comments were recorded about these dissemination activities from sources within the community. The Tribal Advisory Board and Technical Advisory Board members discussed this perspective.

Project Implications

The most important thing about this project is not necessarily the findings per se… I think what’s most important about this particular project is that it showcases the capacity and the quality of the tribe’s work and the ability of what they’re able to do. And their concern and their proactive action on issues like this. This is something that the Tribe is actively going after and researching themselves. It’s all part of sovereignty and self-determination, and basically, part of their treaty rights. And whatever their findings are I think will help them assert those treaty rights.


One of the buzzwords in Indian Country is ‘capacity-building’… there are now young tribal scientists who know how to conduct a research project…Typically the EPA will fund a project for three to four years and the capacity is in the person. When the project ends, the person goes and the Tribe has lost its capacity. Not with this project. The reports stay in the community for a lasting benefit.

Technical advisory board

What we need to start figuring out is how can we use this as an opportunity to work between different programs because I think there’s a continuing role for more of the research and water resources programs with more of the regulatory and management side…


These were issues discussed in principle during the mid-term evaluation. During the information gathering for the final evaluation, these issues emerged again, as the technical advisory board worked with the study findings to identify the correct consumption parameters to use in the risk analysis, aware that the impact of the report will extend beyond the Swinomish community itself. The concerns raised about the Seafood Diet Interviews related to self-reported portion size and the skewed “shape” of the distribution of the consumption curve. The Advisory Board expressed concern that because the model presented to the interviewees as “a serving” was fairly small, interviewees may have underreported their consumption due to a social desirability response. Several ideas were suggested for testing or correcting this portion of the estimate, including finding and substituting published portion size information established in similar populations, returning to a subsample of the households to explore the question of portion size more carefully, or observing portion size as a community gathering offering target foods. However, all ideas were beyond the scope and timing of the project. The second issue that the Advisory Board considered at length was the best way to fairly and appropriately represent in both the risk assessment and the description of the population those individuals and families that continue to consume at close to traditional levels within a community whose overall levels of consumption have declined from traditional levels. Two solutions were explored for this concern: 1) using deciles instead of an overall measure of population central tendency (mean or median consumption) or 2) transform the data to a log normal distribution, conduct the risk analysis, and then convert the data back to interpret the analysis.

At the mid-term evaluation, many of the Technical Advisory Board members urged the project staff to present the study to the larger scientific community, commenting both that the study was of a quality that it could sustain the scrutiny, and to highlight the capacity and initiative of the Native American communities in general, and the Swinomish Tribe in particular. The project manager has made a number of presentations before different audiences of the larger community to describe the implementation of the scientific component of the project. Two factors may impact the schedule of dissemination of the final study results. One factor is the need to resolve the concerns described in the previous paragraph. The other involves the decision to develop an alternative framework for assessing Swinomish health risks due to environmental contaminants, as mentioned earlier in this report.

Text Box: Evaluator’s note

Project staff reported that work to develop this alternative framework is currently underway and will be incorporated in Community dissemination when it is available.

Another issue that interviewees commented on in the mid-term evaluation interviews is the challenges involved in sharing with other tribes. This was expressed in three ways: 1) some concerns were expressed about acceptance of the findings by other tribes who have not been as involved in the project as the Swinomish; 2) some remarked that other tribes may find it difficult to use the results as well as the Swinomish will be able to use them because of the knowledge and experience that accrued to the Swinomish tribe in general and the Planning Department in particular, during the implementation of the project. The third concern was not expressed directly. A member of the Tribal Advisory Board commented that their tribe had considered setting up a monitoring system for their shellfish, but reported discouragement and abandonment of the ambition when they learned from the Swinomish project about the seemingly insurmountable requirements of obtaining a credible sample, commenting that “The scope of the idea ended the impetus to do it.”

Project Impact

Although project staff has not yet received feedback from the scientific or governmental community about the study findings, they sense interest in the study findings from these quarters. Since the study findings have not called for changes in the consumption practices of tribal members, except possibly to increase consumption, the local impact of the study findings themselves have been hard to detect. However, project staff report important learning about the community on their part. It is the developed perception of project staff that because of the cultural and spiritual importance of seafood, some tribal members would continue to consume it, even if the project recommendations had been that consumption poses a significant health risk. However, as the Community Survey, the Seafood Diet Interviews, and the interviews following the Native Lens premiere all show, community members are concerned about the safety of their local seafood. But as the Seafood Diet Interviews also shows, even though pollution is of concern to many of the interviewees, it was identified by only 11% as a reason for reduced consumption. Lower availability and less access, as well as more conveniently available alternatives were mentioned more often as a reason for reduced consumption.

Text Box: Staff learning

Text Box: Continuing Education

Policy impacts of the study findings have not yet emerged. Early reports indicate that the Tribe has decided to use treaty-protected consumption rates in the water quality standards in lieu of current suppressed consumption rates. The goal is to eventually restore the habitat so that it becomes safe to consume seafood at the treaty-protected rates. Other impacts will wait for the alternative framework for assessing risk and health, and for the Tribe’s decision-making process.

Project staff believes that community education has been successful – the Community Surveys indicate that people know there is contamination, although project staff believes that community members were already aware of this and had already moved away from the most contaminated locations. Project staff acknowledges that more education – both of the community and by the community – is needed.

Legacy of the project

Advisory Board members have lauded the EPA for their foresight in funding this project “at a real level.” The project staff was determined to conduct responsible science and develop credible answers for the community. The Technical Advisory Board’s statements, the evaluation’s review of files, and the project manager’s success in presenting the scientific work in peer-reviewed settings corroborate a successfully implemented and disseminated scientific investigation.

Text Box: Innovations

At the mid-term evaluation, interviewees suggested that the science component of the project would be the easy part in comparison to crafting a constructive message to the tribe representing the harvesting and consumption recommendations supported by the science while giving cultural practices their full importance. As it turned out, the risk analyst determined that the majority of the people were ingesting seafood below the limit of safe consumption, given the level of contamination detected in the commonly used locations. The message the project staff has developed for the community about consumption is that it’s safe to eat more seafood harvested in the majority of the areas tested and that the benefits of eating more seafood outweigh risks associated with increased consumption. Project staff report ongoing work to develop a novel alternative health assessment framework based on the Swinomish model of health, which includes the health of the environment, and not only the physiological impacts of environmental health, but also the mental, social, and cultural impacts.

The message about harvesting is only slightly more complex. Although contamination was found at all collections sites, few sites – those around March Point and Fidalgo Bay--were so contaminated that the study supported a recommendation to avoid consuming any seafood harvested from those sites. Project staff did not anticipate that this message would create any new problems within the Tribe as these were not identified as current harvest locations for Tribe members. However, one Senate member recalled that area now most heavily contaminated had been one of the prime harvesting locations 30 years ago, reinforcing the point of reduced access mentioned by people who were interviews for the Seafood Diet Interviews. This location came up again in this project as the youth participating in the Native Lens project articulated through their film Slow Burn the possibility that that region of the coastline may actually belong to the Tribe.

An interesting finding to come out of the data gathering for the final evaluation is the extent of incorporation of some of the components of the BTNAS project into ongoing Tribal services. When project staff were asked about community dissemination strategies, some that figured prominently in the mid-term evaluation and have since become more established in the community were initially omitted from discussion, which was interpreted by the evaluator to indicate that these components are no longer thought of as being project-specific. Upon prompting, project staff reported that:

  • The environment education program, a program that other informants remarked had been “kick-started” by the BTNAS grant, will continue by shifting funding to more permanent programs. Staff report that this educational program brings a person-to-person, “hands-on” approach to education and outreach that previously had been limited to articles in the Tribal newspaper and signs posted on the beach.

Text Box: Hands-On Environmental Education

  • Longhouse Media, a Native based non-profit organization “which supports the growth and expression of Indigenous youth through digital media making[1]” was created as a way to sustain and expand Native Lens. In addition to entering a Native Lens film at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) Longhouse Media staff partnered with the SIFF to conduct a workshop on “fly filmmaking,” an innovative filmmaking method pioneered by the Native Lens youth. Native Lens has expanded and is now working with other tribes in the Pacific Northwest to produce short films about their local environment. Native Lens films have been honored at film festivals across the country from San Francisco to New York.
  • SWN96 Cable channel: In the mid-term evaluation interviews, staff remarked that the community’s cable channel had not yet been put to work for the community. In another example of resource sharing, the BTNAS project engaged the Native Lens videographer, who had also been working with Kee-yoks, the Tribal newspaper, to begin get the SWN96 channel up and running. Study results and recommendations, and Native Lens films have become part of the channel’s programming.

Text Box: About Native Lens

In addition to these changes within the community, project staff reports that the BTNAS project has permitted the Tribe to form or strengthen existing relationships with a number of agencies and organizations outside the Swinomish Community. These include:

  • The Tribal Advisory Board and Longhouse Media provided an opportunity for Swinomish staff to form relationships with staff from other tribes, creating a network that provides a forum to get help with questions a Tribe is working through, disseminate information and share information about funding opportunities.
  • The Technical Advisory Board provided Swinomish staff with the opportunity to form relationships with the UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Services, the Institute for Risk Analysis and Risk Communication, and the Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental health, as well as with government agency researchers at County, State, and Federal levels.
  • The project’s environmental education component has established links with a number of local organizations outside the Swinomish Community, including:
    • The Skagit County Children’s Museum
    • The La Conner Boys’ and Girls’ Club
    • People for Puget Sound
    • Project WET
    • Environmental education for local towns such as Anacortes and Penn Cove such that the Environmental Educator is included in the environmental education activities in these communities such as the Anacortes Marine Day and the Penn Cove Water Festival
    • The environmental education program has also provided a stronger link between the Environmental Science program of the Planning Department (The Water Resources Program) and the Social Services Department which houses birth-to-six daycare and youth activity programs in which the Environmental Educator is now involved.


  • The evaluation of the BTNAS project focused on two different components: 1) the sampling and labwork to determine the level of contamination at traditional sites for harvesting shellfish; and 2) the dissemination of the information back to the Swinomish Community, and to other Tribal communities in a culturally appropriate way, as well as other scientific and governmental entities.
  • The Swinomish Tribe has successfully implemented a credible process for testing contaminants in local shellfish. Project staff reported that they relied heavily on several sources of support: a well-chosen, responsive, and supportive Technical Advisory Board; a well established and supportive Planning Department with a strong Water Resources Program; a supportive project officer; and available literature on conducting the science, as well as the capacity to incorporate the input from these sources.
  • Project management was flexible in responding to unanticipated project needs, such as the need to establish a realistic estimate of current seafood consumption rates by Community members. Midway through the project, project management learned that this information would improve the risk assessment significantly and accordingly developed the culturally appropriate Seafood Diet Interviews to be conducted via in-home interviews.
  • Project staff exhibited a significant ability to identify and share useful resources, leveraging the value of the resource. Two immediate examples of this are the use of expertise and, to some extent, the equipment of the Water Resources Program; and the decision to develop the community cable channel from its initially unformed state to a useable community resource.
  • Project staff identified a number of local dissemination strategies, going beyond the previously limited dissemination of print media and posting signs on the beach. Innovative strategies included initial dissemination via reports to the community members who sit on the Tribal Senate and Senate subcommittees, the Native Lens films, the development of the SWN96 channel, the Tribal website, a wide range of hands-on community education efforts, targeting both children and adults, the development of original artwork and informational pamphlets to be distributed at the health clinic and at the annual Swinomish Health Fair, and community gatherings. An unintended but effective dissemination strategy was the in-home interviews for the Seafood Diet Interviews, providing the project staff with a chance to learn about the value of face-to-face oral communication for the community.
  • Many of these strategies dovetail with recommendations made by community members about preferred ways of getting more information from the study. These community members emphasized the importance of word of mouth, with one individual suggesting taking a pamphlet door to door to present to and discuss with community members. They also commented on the wisdom of using the community’s kids to develop and carry the information. One of these also suggested engaging elders in the delivery of the messages as well.
  • Project staff talked about the pattern of reciprocal learning with community members and the impact of that learning on the project. A critically important new awareness for the project staff was the realization of the depth of the importance of the seafood. Project staff reported that the Seafood Diet Interviews increased their understanding that according to the values of the Tribal members, and like the magnet says, seafood is “food for the body; food for the spirit.” This awareness, and with it the awareness of the Swinomish definition of health, led project staff to work toward developing an innovative risk assessment framework that incorporates the multi-dimensional Swinomish definition of health and well-being rather than the current relatively narrow definition of health. It is the goal to create the alternative assessment so that Native communities may gain more benefit from studies such as these.
  • Staff reports that several of these innovations have already resulted in sustained impact. Specifically:
    • Native Lens is now one of Longhouse Media’s programs. Longhouse Media is a newly formed Native-held, non-profit organization developing a new generation of storytellers among Native American youth, using today’s technology;
    • The SWN96 cable channel is now a functional Community resource, with continual programming;
    • The Community Education Program has expanded and transformed the Planning Department’s outreach strategies, and has strengthened the Department’s link with other Tribal departments.
    • The Environmental Educator and the project manager have both forged relationships that they expect to be ongoing with organizations, tribes and other entities outside the Swinomish Community, both in the nearby communities, and statewide.

This section will gather recommendations made by others and reported above. It will also include some evaluator observations and suggestions.

  • Having observed the impact of household visits for the Seafood Diet Interviews on community education, consider implementing some version of the dissemination strategy of visiting Community households door to door with an informational pamphlet, as suggested by a community member.
  • Consider engaging community elders in developing and carrying the project’s message to the community.
  • Consider addressing the follow up questions asked by Community Survey respondents, as well as any others during the course of the project.
  • Consider collecting additional information, either through re-interviewing Seafood Diet Interviews participants or by observing consumption behavior at a community gathering to develop a more accurate estimate of portion size and current seafood consumption.
  • Address the diversity in response to the message as it has gone out so far. This will be difficult because it will be difficult to differentiate differences in how information is received from differences in how information is conveyed. The development and incorporation of the alternative framework for risk assessment may address this concern. It may also be worthwhile to develop or review the message with all potential messengers to be sure that all potential messengers understand and agree with the message. This may require a process similar to that engaged at the beginning of the project to establish QAPP and other protocol.
  • Several indications of the importance of word of mouth or person-to-person dissemination emerged throughout this evaluation. Combined with the diversity of reactions to the information, it stimulated the hypothesis that an important component of successful and complete dissemination may be the opportunity for interaction about the material. Perhaps the chance for Community members to ask clarifying questions or provide additional information, or the chance to talk about the meaning of the information to the recipient’s life or just a chance to have a reaction in the company of another person. If this hypothesis has merit, the idea of going door to door with a pamphlet is an excellent suggestion.
  • This project has a very strong community education component. I’d like to offer two minor suggestions to strengthen dissemination outside the community;
    • Canvass other tribes to find out who has or had any interest in monitoring the health of their shellfish. Develop a response that communicates both that although it is a demanding process, it is feasible for a tribe to implement it successfully. Realize that if the tribe is seeking support, but hear how tedious, difficult, and demanding it was to meet the EPA’s requirements, it may be overwhelming and discouraging.
    • Consider working with your many new contacts to put a link on their websites to the BTNAS study on the Swinomish website. Also, consider adding your partners’ links to your website.

Journal Articles on this Report : 2 Displayed | Download in RIS Format

Other project views: All 30 publications 2 publications in selected types All 2 journal articles
Type Citation Project Document Sources
Journal Article Donatuto J, Harper BL. Issues in evaluating fish consumption rates for Native American tribes. Risk Analysis 2008;28(6):1497-1506. R829467 (Final)
  • Abstract from PubMed
  • Full-text: Text HTML
  • Abstract: Wiley-Abstract
  • Journal Article Judd NL, Drew CH, Acharya C, Mitchell TA, Donatuto JL, Burns GW, Burbacher TM, Faustman EM, Marine Resources for Future Generations. Framing scientific analyses for risk management of environmental hazards by communities: case studies with seafood safety issues. Environmental Health Perspectives 2005;113(11):1502-1508. R829467 (Final)
  • Full-text from PubMed
  • Abstract from PubMed
  • Associated PubMed link
  • Full-text: Text PDF
  • Supplemental Keywords:

    littleneck clams, Prototheca staminea, Japanese oysters Crassostrea gigas, Dungeness crabs, Cancer magister, Swinomish, Native American, bioaccumulation, shellfish, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychloronated dibenzofurans, polychloronated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychloronated biphenyls, heavy metals, , Toxics, Economic, Social, & Behavioral Science Research Program, Scientific Discipline, Health, RFA, environmental justice, EPCRA, Risk Assessments, Social Science, Health Risk Assessment, Ecological Risk Assessment, education, exposure assessment, fish-borne toxicants, heavy metals, community based intervention, public health intervention, tribal communities, hazardous environmental exposures, human health risk, intervention strategies, partnerships, community support, native americans, dietary exposure, shellfish consumpttion, environmental risks, environmental toxicants, cultural differences, community outreach, PAH, PCB,, RFA, Economic, Social, & Behavioral Science Research Program, Health, Scientific Discipline, Toxics, Health Risk Assessment, environmental justice, Risk Assessments, Ecological Risk Assessment, EPCRA, Social Science, hazardous environmental exposures, partnerships, public health intervention, education, environmental risks, PAH, cultural differences, human exposure, PCB, community outreach, environmental toxicants, intervention strategies, native americans, dietary exposure, community based intervention, tribal communities, exposure assessment, fish-borne toxicants, heavy metals, human health risk, community support

    Progress and Final Reports:

    Original Abstract
  • 2002
  • 2003
  • 2004 Progress Report
  • 2005