Public backlash causes shellfish growers to abandon spraying

Burrowing shrimp in Willapa Bay like the one shown here are a major problem for commercial oyster growers. A permit for a type of spray that growers hoped would control the shrimp has now been withdrawn.

LONG BEACH, Wash. — A state-approved pesticide application to promote oyster production was scientifically researched for more than a decade and undone by bad publicity in two weeks.

Facing a consumer, media and activist backlash, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor shellfish growers Sunday dropped plans to spray up to 2,000 acres of tidelands with imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide commonly used on land crops.

The chemical was to kill burrowing shrimp, a native and inedible species that churns up mud and causes oysters to sink and suffocate.

Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor combined yield about 25 percent of the oysters harvested in the U.S. If left unchecked, burrowing shrimp eventually will cut production by 80 to 90 percent, estimates Washington State University research scientist Kim Patten, who has spent more than a decade studying the problem.

He concluded that imidacloprid was the only realistic alternative to the more-toxic carbaryl, which the industry started using in 1963 but is giving up to avoid litigation. The project’s abandonment Sunday was a personal blow, Patten said.

“You can’t help but take it personally. Could I have done this differently? Could either myself or WSU done a better job?” he asked. “From a scientific standpoint, it’s sound science. There’s minimal risk with this product.”

The Washington Department of Ecology issued the spraying permit April 16 and vigorously defended its decision as environmentally sound.

But DOE and shellfish growers met Sunday, and the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Grower’s Association withdrew its application.

“While we continue to support the responsible decision by the Department of Ecology to issue this permit, recent actions by the media, other groups and on social media have mischaracterized the impacts and use of our permit and led to an incredible amount of misinformation based on misunderstanding,” the association’s president, Don Gillies, wrote in a letter to DOE Director Maia Bellon.

“These actions have caused a significant threat to the economic stability of our family farms, and we believe we have no choice but to withdraw our permit and address these issues to the satisfaction of our customer base and the public.”

DOE spokesman Chase Gallagher said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Agriculture approved spaying imidacloprid in the bay and harbor. He said the chemical would have been far less toxic than carbaryl and administered in much smaller doses, 8 ounces to an acre compared to 8 pounds to an acre.

“I think the shellfish industry heard from their customers and re-evaluated it, and we respect that re-evaluation,” Gallagher said.

Laura Hendricks of the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat praised Seattle restaurant chefs quoted in a Seattle Times story and others for saying they didn’t want their seafood sprayed with chemicals. “Power to the public. It’s great,” she said.

Hendricks said the issue wasn’t whether imidacloprid is more benign than carbaryl. “The issue is they want presticide-free shellfish,” she said.

Patten said that over the years he and others have experimented with biological, mechanical and chemical methods of rooting out burrowing. “These guys are 2 feet under the ground and are difficult to control,” he said.

Imidacloprid was tested and the results were underwhelming — “maybe 50 percent control,” Patten said. Still, he said, it was the best alternative available to growers.

“These are smart people. If there was something else, they would do it. They don’t want to use these chemicals. It’s not good for business,” he said.

It’s unlcear what the oyster grower’s association will do next. Efforts to reach association officials were unsuccessful.

Willapa Bay shellfish growers also face ongoing challenges to their DOE-issued permit to spray imazamox to kill Japanese eelgrass, which smothers clam beds. “Our position is the shellfish industry needs to be pesticide-free,” Hendricks said. “The problem hasn’t been solved.”

Patten said he’s concerned anti-pesticide activists have gained momentum and will sense blood in the water. “You have a wounded animal, and everybody’s going to feed on him.”

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