Colbert’s Stoned Salmon Highlights Puget Sound’s Tainted Wastewater Problems

Puget Sound’s tainted wastewater was the subject of a segment on late-night TV Tuesday that featured a seriously high salmon.

Taking a cue from a recent federal-university study that found legal and other drugs in the tissues of two native species, host Steven Colbert of The Late Show interviewed Sammy the Salmon, a bloodshot-eyed Chinook who hit up Colbert for a large loan, did the salmon shake dance on his desk and got a couple pick-me-ups from a glass (allegedly) containing Puget Sound water.

“Yeah, me likey!” roared the fish puppet. “I’ll spawn with anything that moves!”

THE LATE SHOW HOST STEPHEN COLBERT GETS A LAUGH OUT OF A HIGH SAMMY THE PUGET SOUND CHINOOK DURING A SEGMENT ON MARCH 29, 2016. (CBS)
THE LATE SHOW HOST STEPHEN COLBERT GETS A LAUGH OUT OF A HIGH SAMMY THE PUGET SOUND CHINOOK DURING A SEGMENT ON MARCH 29, 2016. (CBS)

It’s a pretty funny 4 minutes, but also highlights a depressing problem (better up our Prozac dosage!) for our marine environment and one of our most prized fish stocks.

Earlier this year, scientists from NMFS’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the UW tested wastewater effluent, as well as Chinook and Pacific staghorn sculpins, in several South Sound bays and found 42 “emerging” compounds in the fishes’ bodies.

Besides antidepressants, Lipitor, Flonase, Paxil and the rest of the medicine cabinet, they found cocaine too.

Thus, Sammy the Salmon and his need for a fix of “Little Mermaid’s Little Helper,” as Colbert called it.

“Invincible — I will fight a grizzly bear!” Sammy boasts when asked how he’s feeling at the top of the interview.

The study, subsequent news stories and the Colbert skit have the potential to harm Puget Sound charter and tackle shop businesses, but it should be pointed out that the researchers did NOT look into the effect of anglers eating Chinook from Puget Sound. It wasn’t clear whether the drug-laden tissue tested was inedible gut and head or those and the meat. Currently, DOH uniformly recommends no more than one meal of ocean-going kings a week and two of resident blackmouth a month.

But what’s worrisome according to NMFS is that, “Some of the compounds such as fluoxetine (also known as Prozac), the diabetes drug metformin and the antibacterial compound triclosan were present in fish tissues at levels that may be high enough to adversely affect their growth, reproduction, or behavior.”

Federal press release writers were careful about going beyond that, but in a news story earlier this week, an Oregon State University professor who participated in the study talked about what happens with fish behavior he’s seen across multiple studies.

“The fish became … I hate to use the word ‘happy,’ but … became less concerned about being in the open where they could be eaten by other fish. Mainly because the compounds, these anti-depressants, had altered their mood and made them less afraid,” Sam Chan told OPB.

According to NMFS, saltwater’s higher PH makes the chemicals more “bioavailable” to fish than they would be in freshwater.

The study suggests that if the level of drugs in wastewater effluent entering Sinclair Inlet, Commencement Bay and the Nisqually estuary are indicative of similar places elsewhere in the Whulge, “nearly 300 pounds of the emerging contaminants likely enter Puget Sound every day.”

“This is right in the area where juvenile salmon and other fish are feeding and growing,” lead study author James Meador said.

I seriously doubt anybody will be dumping their unused coke in the trash can anytime soon, but that’s where prescription drugs should go — there or to special collection points, rather than flushed down the toilet.

That could help detox our friend Sammy the Salmon.

“I can not be killed!” he shouts at the end of the segment.

You — but really, us — are in need of an intervention.

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