Washington oyster farmers need help

Burrowing shrimp taken from Willapa Bay, Wash. The shrimp kill oysters by undermining them and causing them to suffocate in the mud. Oyster farmers are appealing a state decision not to approve a pesticide that kills the shrimp.

‘Neonic” is a word that sets off alarm bells among the anti-pesticide crowd, most of whom oppose the chemicals that farmers and ranchers need to protect their crops and livestock.

Neonics — the common term for neonicotinoid pesticides — were blamed for the problems honeybees were encountering in relation to colony collapse disorder, when large numbers of bees would die or disappear. Researchers ultimately determined several factors were to blame in addition to pesticide exposure, including varroa mites, poor nutrition and other stressors, according to the USDA.

Among the solutions identified is making sure pesticides are not applied nearby while honeybees are pollinating orchards or crops. If a farmer sprays a pesticide on his crop and a neighbor is pollinating trees, the result could be a disaster.

In the meantime, pesticide haters have latched onto neonics as one more reason pesticides are bad for bees — and everything else. When used properly, the pesticides are safe and effective.

Which brings us the latest context in which neonics have found their way into the spotlight. Oyster farmers and researchers have for years worked to gain Washington state approval for using the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid to protect oysters from ghost shrimp. The finger-sized creatures burrow 3 feet below the surface of the mud, causing the oysters to sink into it and suffocate.

Oyster farmers had asked the Washington Department of Ecology for permission to spray imidacloprid on 500 acres of mudflats in an effort to stop the ghost shrimp from killing oysters. Kim Patten, a Washington State University researcher, has found that the pesticide is the only practical way for the farmers to protect their oysters from the shrimp.

Oysters are raised by family farmers, and the $12.2 million shellfish industry is the largest employer in Pacific County, Wash.

Yet it’s that word “neonic” that seems to have put Seattle’s anti-pesticide crowd on red alert, opposing the use of imidacloprid. They took to social media — the source of most misinformation these days — to holler about neonics.

Except they forgot one thing: The alleged problem with neonics is their impact on honeybees and other pollinators when they are misapplied during bloom. Honeybees are not known to inhabit oyster beds or mudflats. The use of neonics on mudflats would have nothing to do with pollinators.

Oyster farmers say they will appeal Ecology’s decision to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board. They say they have a decade of research to prove the safety and effectiveness of imidacloprid in aquatic applications.

Our hope is the board will agree that science should prevail over social media when it comes to deciding whether to use imidacloprid to protect oysters. We will not hold our breath, however.

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