Washington nixes shrimp control

Willapa Bay shellfish farmer Brian Sheldon looked for clams on tidelands undermined by burrowing shrimp. The Washington Department of Ecology this week denied an application to spray the shrimp.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that oyster growers have decided to appeal the Washington Department of Ecology’s adverse decision on a pesticide permit. This decision has not been made. The Chinook Observer regrets the error.

NAHCOTTA — Alleging statewide officials are putting electoral politics ahead of science and the rural economy, Willapa Bay oyster growers are excoriating a decision Monday by the Washington Department of Ecology to deny their application to control burrowing shrimp with a chemical spray.

DOE’s decision to not allow use of the pesticide imidacloprid in the marine environment had been widely anticipated after it issued a highly skeptical final environmental impact statement on Jan. 5. The agency said then that it intended to make its decision public in early February. This was delayed until April 9 after legislators and the shellfish industry pushed for something other than a flat denial, efforts that resulted in a March 12 announcement the state will dedicate over $1 million to additional research on spraying alternatives.

An estimated 25 percent of all U.S. oysters are grown in this region, with the shellfish industry generating more than $100 million a year for the state economy. It is the largest private employer in Pacific County. However, the continued proliferation of burrowing shrimp — often called “ghost shrimp” — is rapidly turning prime oyster-growing land into a muddy wasteland. The shrimp soften the ground, making it impossible for oysters to grow. The industry pinned its hopes on a plan to start spraying up to 500 of Willapa Bay’s 150,000 acres of privately owned tideland. Without spraying, growers say up to 90 percent of their acreage will cease to be viable.

The industry asserts imidacloprid is a more benign chemical than carbaryl, a long-time pesticide option they were required to give up in a court settlement with an environmental group. The state DOE initially was an enthusiastic backer of imidacloprid, which studies show has benefits for habitat diversity and little obvious downside.

“We believe this decision is based on politics and not on sound science,” said Ken Wiegardt, president of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association, in a press release. “The department has reversed itself completely from the scientific findings of its own Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, released in September [2016], without any actual new research. If this political, non-scientific decision stands, burrowing shrimp will continue to destroy our oyster beds and severely damage our industry, our estuary and our entire rural economy.”

However, DOE Director Maia Bellon said Monday, “We’ve been working with this community of growers for years to move away from chemical pesticides and find a safer alternative to control burrowing shrimp. The science around imidacloprid is rapidly evolving and we can’t ignore it. New findings make it clear that this pesticide is simply too risky and harmful to be used in Washington’s waters and estuaries.”

DOE’s decision is subject to a public comment period before it is final. The public may submit comments on this decision through May 14. Once final, the decision may be appealed to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board within 30 days.

In an interview Tuesday, Marilyn Sheldon of Northern Oyster Co. said the loss of oyster-growing beds in the bay to shrimp is something large-scale growers can weather, but “the question is will there be any small growers left” by the time state agencies recognize how harmful the shrimp population explosion is to the bay’s ability to function as a healthy water body.

DOE’s decision “will have short-term devastating effects on us, but long-term devastating effects on the [Willapa] estuary as a whole,” she said.

Sheldon said the recently announced efforts by the state to identify viable options for spraying failed to acknowledge that “The reality is we have never stopped exploring non-chemical controls.” Personnel from seven universities have been among “brilliant minds” who, she said, have sought ways to limit shrimp without pesticides. So far, nothing has matched the effectiveness of imidacloprid.

Wiegardt said both the need for the growers’ proposed pest-control program — not just limited to the future viability of natural, on-bottom culture of Pacific oysters, but to associated and dependent species as well, including Dungeness crabs — and the environmental safety of the program have been clearly demonstrated.

“Gov. Inslee acknowledged the need to control the burrowing shrimp when he toured the tide-flats last year, and the Legislature acknowledged this when it appropriated money in this year’s operating budget to conduct scientific monitoring of the pest-control program,” said Wiegardt.

The monitoring funded by the Legislature would be supervised by a panel of expert scientists to study potential off-plot effects of the program, as well as effects in sediments with high levels of organic materials. These are the two areas of “new” scientific uncertainty cited by DOE’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

“We can’t do any monitoring or studies — which means we can never answer the scientific questions raised in the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement — unless we get approval of the permit,” Wiegardt said. “If there is no other authority to apply the pesticide that can be used by the growers, or by the scientists who would do the monitoring?”

According to Wiegardt, DOE fully participated in past experimental studies of this treatment, and never raised these concerns when they did so. “To us, it seems like Ecology has been laying in the weeds, delaying action on our permit application, and politicizing the future of our farms,” he said.

WGHOGA members have offered a modification to the permit application that they claim is superior to denial, because it provides a path for these areas of uncertainty to be addressed, with science leading the way — while also providing data for other questions recently raised by Ecology, such as the persistence of the chemical over time.

In 2015, WGHOGA was granted a permit to treat 2,000 acres, although the permit was canceled by Ecology. The association’s 2016 permit application, now pending for more than two years, sought authority to treat 500 acres, or one-quarter of the initial approved permit. WGHOGA’s newly proposed modification to this already-much-reduced application is for approval with reduced acreage in the first year of the permit. WGHOGA also proposes that the permit specify that these acres can be used only to conduct scientific monitoring, and that the permit specify that approval over the rest of the permit cycle will depend on the results of that monitoring.

“In other words, real-time monitoring, with pass-fail grading, and continued treatment contingent upon the monitoring showing no environmental harm,” said Wiegardt. “This to us seems like a reasonable proposal that allows the growers to conduct some burrowing shrimp control on our oyster beds, guarantees the highest degree of confidence in the environmental safety of the program, and performs much-needed field testing to resolve scientific questions that could not otherwise be performing without the issuance of a permit.”

More information about the burrowing ghost shrimp infestation and WGHOGA’s proposed pest-control program: protectwillapabay.org. For more on DOE’s environmental review and decision: www.ecology.wa.gov/burrowingshrimp.

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