NAHCOTTA — The Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association has ceased its struggle to use a controversial insecticide to control burrowing shrimp in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.
On Oct. 15 the association dropped its appeal of the state Ecology Department’s denial of a permit to apply the insecticide to 500 acres of land in Willapa Bay. Dropping the appeal was part of a settlement agreement the association reached with Ecology.
Growers wanted to use imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide, to control populations of ghost shrimp in Willapa Bay. Shrimp populations have risen over the last 60 years. When ghost shrimp overtake an oyster bed, their feeding activities render the bed unusable. The shrimp stir the bay’s bottom, causing oysters to sink into the sandy mud and suffocate.
“The farmers are losing their land at a high rate of speed,” said Paul Queary, spokesperson for the association. “Rather than engage in endless litigation we decided that it was better to work with the state.”
About a quarter of U.S. oysters are grown in Willapa Bay and nearby Puget Sound. The shellfish industry is the largest private employer in Pacific County. If the shrimp cannot be controlled, growers have said previously they anticipate 90 percent of their acreage will cease to be viable.
Bay out of whack
The shrimp threaten the entire bay, said Dan Driscoll, owner of Oysterville Sea Farms in Oysterville. Driscoll is not a member of the association, but the shrimp have affected his business all the same. The shrimp create a monolithic culture in the bay and threaten other living things, like eelgrass. And in August it makes the bay a treacherous place to walk, he said.
He hopes the settlement means there will be more collaboration on the problem.
“We need to work together to try to bring the bay more in balance,” Driscoll said. “It is out of whack.”
The settlement agreement established a working group to study alternative methods of controlling the shrimp. And the association will seek $650,000 from the Legislature to fund research into an Integrated Pest Management plan. Under the settlement, use of imidacloprid in the bay will not be considered by the working group. The agreement still must be approved by the Pollution Control Hearings Board. That approval is expected this week, said Colleen Keltz, an Ecology department spokesperson. But Ecology sees this as a positive step forward.
“We are pleased to have a path forward to find environmentally and economically sound options for controlling burrowing shrimp populations in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor,” Keltz said.
But Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Olsen is wary of the settlement. The state promised help for oyster growers after Ecology denied the permit, but there still isn’t a solution. And she doesn’t think the state understands the urgency of this issue.
“There is only one person at this table that is on an expiration date and that’s the farmer,” Olsen said. “You’re still going to have a job when they go out of business.”
And oyster farmers for years have tried alternative methods to control the shrimp populations, Olsen said. “We’re willing to try them again,” Olsen said. “But in the past, they just haven’t worked.”
Scrutiny over the practices of the shellfish industry isn’t over. On Oct. 10, U.S. District Court Judge Robert S. Lasnik vacated a nationwide permit for Washington shellfish farmers issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps will need to reexamine the environmental effects of the farmers’ use of plastics in oyster culture before the permit can be reissued.
Leading up to this point
Before proposing to use imidacloprid, carbaryl was the chemical used for years to control burrowing shrimp in Willapa Bay. But oyster growers agreed in 2004 to begin phasing out carbaryl — also commonly used in flea collars for pets — after pressure from environmental groups.
In April 2015 the Ecology department issued a permit allowing oyster and clam growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor to spray up to 2,000 acres of tidelands with imidacloprid. But after statewide negative outcry sparked by a Seattle Times column that said the pesticide would have unintended consequences to local sea-life, the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association told DOE it was suspending the permit.
The association reapplied in January 2016, asking to test imidacloprid on fewer acres, but the state responded that it considered the original permit to have been canceled. More than two years after the growers applied for a new permit, the department notified them that it intended to deny the request. The final denial was issued on Sept. 27, 2018. About a month later, the growers association filed an appeal to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.
NOAA Fisheries opposed the use of imidacloprid in the bay. In a 2017 Kim Kratz, an assistant regional administrator for the NOAA Oregon-Washington Coastal Area office, wrote a to the Ecology Department and cautioned against the use of the pesticide. Kratz cited a study done by the Health Canada Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency.
“They found ambient concentrations of imidacloprid in aquatic environments at levels above what are harmful to aquatic insects.,” Kratz worte. “They also found, based on currently available information, the continued high-volume use of imidacloprid in agricultural areas is not sustainable.”
The use of Imidacloprid is not banned statewide and is used on crops such as hops. The Ecology department was involved in this case because it involved water quality.