PACIFIC COUNTY — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee discussed food tourism, the erstwhile state capital budget, the need for erosion control money, burrowing shrimp and other topics during a breakneck tour of Pacific County on July 25.
The governor’s second visit to the county was part of a two-day trip that also included a July 24 junket in Grays Harbor County. On Tuesday morning, he met with North Pacific County leaders before visiting oyster beds in Willapa Bay. In Long Beach, he lunched with local leaders, then hosted a meeting of tourism professionals at Adrift Hotel. Inslee, who is an avid cyclist, finished the day by riding the Discovery Trail with a group of local kids.
During his tour stops, he praised the beauty of the area.
“This is a great place to live, and we have a lot of people who are looking for great places to live,” Inslee said.
Around 30 people gathered in Raymond on Tuesday morning for an hour-long meeting, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said. He spoke with participants about improving access to high-speed internet service, and creating technical and vocational classes that could help high school students develop job skills before graduation. The first measure, he said, would bring jobs to rural workers. The second would bring qualified rural workers to jobs.
In a brief interview, Inslee said he thought the county is a “place with a lot of opportunities,” but the need for both technological and physical infrastructure investment remains a significant challenge.
“Broadband access is a crying need for rural areas,” Inslee said in a brief interview. “In the next session, I hope the legislature will engage in some real discussion of that.”
Oysters up close
The governor and First Lady Trudi Inslee got a crash-course in the ecology of the Willapa Bay while taking a boat tour hosted by Goose Point Oysters in Bay Center.
The Inslees’ guides, Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy and Marilyn Sheldon, are among the local oyster growers who want the state Department of Ecology to approve a permit that would allow them to use imidacloprid to get rapidly-growing and highly destructive burrowing shrimp populations under control. They say the chemical could fix one of the biggest threats to the bay without harming the ecosystem or people who eat local seafood. The growers hope that after seeing the scale of the shrimp problem in person, Inslee will urge Ecology to speed up the permitting process, which is now in its second year.
The hosts took the group of roughly 15 people to visit a healthy oyster bed. Initially, organizers thought Inslee would only view the oysters from the boat, Nisbet-Moncy said on July 27. However, he borrowed a pair of rubber boots, and gamely waded to shore with the others.
Standing amidst thousands of growing oysters and tangles of eelgrass, Inslee listened as Nisbet-Moncy talked him through the basics of oyster biology, and told him about production techniques that are helping local growers meet demand for local seafood in East Asia.
A short jaunt across the water took the group to a spot where the severity of the burrowing shrimp infestation was plainly visible. Compared to the first oyster bed, the second looked like an underwater desert. Hardly anything grew on the barren expanse of sticky black mud that was a productive oyster bed not very long ago.
Sheldon said the shrimp become a problem when there are more than about 10 per square meter. After several years of manageable shrimp numbers, populations began growing “by magnitudes,” she said, and no one knows exactly why. There are now places where there are as many as 800 juvenile and adult shrimp in each square meter, making the mud so soft that it quickly swallows and suffocates eelgrass, oysters — and virtually everything else.
Nisbet-Moncy and Assistant Farm Manager Hector Meliton clambered out of the boats to dig up some shrimp, and immediately sank up to their knees. After a few laborious steps, Nisbet-Moncy had to kneel while she wrested one of her legs out of the sucking mud.
When they returned with one of the burrowing shrimp, Inslee and his companions clustered around to photograph the little creature with their cell phones.
The governor listened attentively as Sheldon spoke. He asked numerous questions, a few of which suggested a lack of familiarity with the issue.
“Have you tried other methods?” he asked.
Sheldon listed the myriad tactics researchers tried before concluding imidacloprid was the only effective method — everything from habanero oil and electric shocks to pouring cement pads on the bottom of the bay and pumping jets of fresh water into shrimp habitat. Off-ground growing structures eventually sink into the muck, creating safety concerns for harvesters, and damaging some of the most valuable oyster stock, Sheldon said.
She described how the shrimp infestations kill eelgrass, a fundamental component of the bay’s ecosystem.
“If you lose eelgrass, you lose crab,” Sheldon said. “It’s not just the oyster industry — it’s the actual ecology that is changing.”
Nisbet-Moncy later said oyster-growers had been asking the governor to tour the bay for about two years. She was nervous, she said, but felt the tour was a success.
“I thought the governor asked a lot of good key questions, and I think he came away with a new perspective on what we’re doing,” Nisbet-Moncy said. “We’re not just raising our hands and saying, ‘Fire! Fire!’”
“I wanted to understand the specifics of the estuary,” Inslee said after the tour. “I have learned you can read memos until the cows come home, but there’s nothing like standing in the mud to really understand it.”
The governor said the stark contrasts between the healthy and shrimp-infested oyster beds made a big impression on him.
“It’s shrimp and ooze, and that’s it. It’s a very different ecosystem. That was something I was not aware of before I came out,” Inslee told the Observer. “When you see somebody sink up to their knees, it’s pretty impressive.”
Around 25 people gathered Pickled Fish restaurant on Tuesday afternoon. Participants talked about the growing interest in the Peninsula as a food destination, the contributions that local tourism makes to the economy, and potential projects, like trail expansion and a Washington distillery tour, that could drive more visitors to the region.
They also asked Inslee to give more attention to a couple of local needs. Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau Director Andi Day urged Inslee to keep pushing legislators to invest in tourism marketing. While many other western states invest millions in attracting visitors, Washington does not.
“This is a great frustration of mine,” Inslee said.
Some participants said the shortage of quality affordable housing makes it difficult to recruit and retain staff. Many agreed with Inslee that faster, more reliable broadband would make it easier for people to get living-wage jobs without leaving the area. Inslee said he is studying various options, including allowing public ports to provide internet service. The idea appeals to many rural citizens, but “is not without controversy,” Inslee said, because the influential lobbies for commercial internet providers are opposed to the idea.
Inslee praised local small businesses for their creativity and initiative.
“I get really jazzed, thinking about what you’ve done,” he said. He closed by reminding participants that many of the projects that could spur the local economy depend on the Capital Budget, which legislators recently failed to pass at the conclusion of a third special session, leaving many public development projects without a way forward.
“The capital budget is a big deal,” Inslee said. “It means trails, infrastructure, museums.”