OLYMPIA — Two bills in the state Legislature, if passed, would allow a controversial pesticide to be used by shellfish growers to kill burrowing shrimp, a pest that growers say threatens their livelihood. The bills dodge the state Department of Ecology’s denial of the pesticide’s use last year and could allow growers to spray the chemical without any further environmental review by mid-May.
Drafted by Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who is the prime sponsor along with Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, the bills — SB 5626 and HB 1611 — would allow some oyster growers on Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor to treat a total of 1,000 acres of tideland in 2019 with the pesticide imidacloprid. The bills specify that a permit is issued by May 15 at the latest for 2019 treatment, and that the Department of Ecology issue another permit by April 15, 2020, for the growers to annually treat that amount of tideland.
“This is such a big deal to the oyster farmers, particularly in Willapa Bay, that a small amount of spraying and study is not going to ruin the bay,” said Takko. “At some point you have to say, ‘Put the politics aside on policy, and start doing it based on facts.’”
The Department of Ecology said it would oppose the new bills if they did receive a formal hearing, and several environmental and public health groups have released a joint statement opposing the pesticide’s approval.
Switch to ag agency
The bills propose switching oversight of the shellfish pesticide permits from Ecology to the Department of Agriculture, and propose allocating $500,000 from the state general fund and $1 million from the state toxics control account to study the impacts of imidacloprid as burrowing shrimp control. The bills are co-sponsored by House Reps. Jim Walsh, Mike Chapman, Larry Springer, Joel Kretz and Mary Dye and Sens. Kevin Van De Wege, Judy Warnick, Steve Hobbs and Jim Honeyford.
Imidacloprid is classified as a neonicitanoid, and is often used to kill insects by acting on the creatures’ nervous system and incapacitating them.
For years, oyster growers have hoped imidacloprid could be the answer to control burrowing shrimp, a native species that has ruined significant amounts of oyster farmland in both Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. When the shrimp burrow into the mud beneath oysters, the mud is turned into a slurry. This causes oysters to suffocate when they sink into the softened mud.
The bills also prohibit application of the pesticide via helicopter. Blake said the pesticide would likely be applied with a backpack sprayer when the tides are out. Takko added the spraying is done several months before shellfish are put back onto the site after the shrimp are taken care of.
There’s a long history between oyster growers and the Department of Ecology over pesticides, going back to 2013, when growers were forced to stop using carbaryl, a different pesticide that was considered more harmful than imidacloprid.
In 2015, the Department of Ecology approved imidacloprid for spraying to members of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association (WGHOGA). There was significant backlash in the public from seafood restaurants and others over use of the pesticide, so much so that growers themselves asked the state to put their permit on hold.
Thirteen of the 19 oyster growers in WGHOGA reapplied to have imidacloprid approved in 2016, but it was denied. After having once approved it, the Department of Ecology said more recent studies found that the pesticide was more harmful than they were aware of in 2015. The agency said negative impacts included: unavoidable impacts to sediment quality and benthic invertebrates such as crabs; negative impacts to fish and birds by killing food sources; and uncertainty about long-term non-lethal impacts.
Takko, and some oyster growers, such as Marilyn Sheldon from Northern Oyster Company on Willapa Bay, say the reversal to deny the permit was based on politics, and not on new science. Sheldon, who co-owns hundreds of acres in Willapa Bay, said she’s probably lost 350 acres at this point to the shrimp. She said the Department of Ecology made a “180-degree turn” between the draft and the final versions in its environmental impact statement to determine imidacloprid was too harmful.
“The changes they did in a matter of weeks, with no new science, no new information. I think it was clear to our legislators that the process failed us,” Sheldon said.
Blake said he views the bills as a chance to continue research into imidacloprid, and a way to continue work alongside other methods of shrimp control being tested, like working to understand the natural predators of the shrimp, or using tractors to disrupt and kill shrimp through a method called harrowing. He said the pesticides can also help oyster beds reclaim diversity by getting rid of the shrimp.
“It’s fairly benign the way they use it to restore oyster beds and clam beds,” said Blake. “Once the shrimp have taken over and you use the treatment to restore the stability of the bed, the diversity of the bed returns and improves on-site.”
Takko was more vocal about using the bills to begin spraying tideland with the pesticide, and said they would still monitor its effects during the process.
“We want to use it on a limited basis to start getting ahead of this problem, and at the same time we can monitor things,” said Takko.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a national non-profit group, released a statement Feb. 5, along with three other environmental and public health groups saying they oppose imidacloprid’s use on the two estuaries and that they are taking legal steps to intervene in the WGHOGA’s effort to appeal Ecology’s denial of imidacloprid.
“There’s absolutely no question that this dangerous neurotoxin will harm crustaceans and shellfish,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in the statement. “Washingtonians don’t want our beloved coast treated like a hazardous-waste dump. It’s important to find sustainable answers to challenges facing Washington oyster farmers that help balance, rather than poison, the environment we all share.”
Although Takko believes many of the small oyster growers are interested in taking advantage of the permit, there are some who aren’t interested in using the pesticide, and say the shrimp haven’t been a major hinderance on their business.
Dan Driscoll, owner of Oysterville Sea Farms, said he’s been able to avoid areas of his tideland that do have shrimp, and has grown oysters in less dense clumps. But he also acknowledged some growers don’t have the luxury of moving to other spaces and said he supports their efforts to control the shrimp.
He added that he thinks the burrowing shrimp infestation isn’t as bad as in the early 1990s but, that it has gotten worse each of the last five years.