Willapa Bay oyster shells South Bend

A small mountain of oyster shells in South Bend awaits placement back in Willapa Bay, where they serve as places for young oysters to attach and grow.

It’s painful to consider how Washington state agencies and some political leaders are risking both Willapa Bay and Pacific County’s economy.

Oysters

In a faddish pursuit of an urban ideal of chemical-free farming, the Washington Department of Ecology, with direction from the governor’s office, is leaving shellfish growers with no realistic option to manage burrowing shrimp. Though they are a natural and even welcome component of Willapa’s biome — serving as food for sturgeon and other bottom feeders — decades of mismanagement set the stage for an out-of-control shrimp population explosion.

The situation is analogous to millions of moles churning up the grounds of the state Capitol campus, over and over again smothering every blade of grass and flower, while denuding the soil of its nematodes, earthworms, insects and much of its microscopic life. You can bet that such an imbalance would not be permitted in Olympia or Seattle. And yet it is being insisted upon in Willapa Bay, which produces valuable crops and not just political hot air.

Shrimp aren’t the only problem, though they certainly do threaten the livelihoods of oyster and clam growers, whose privately owned tidelands are being rendered unusable for traditional aquaculture. Beyond the serious economic and cultural cost of losing a crucial and colorful industry, giving Willapa to the shrimp gravely harms a wide array of other species.

Shrimp vs. everything

The bay is an enormously complex natural system being ground into a watery desert while a state-run “work group” chases after hypothetical fixes. Shellfish interests are represented in this group. Regrettably, however, the discussion has been overly framed as one of “shrimp vs. oysters,” when the health of the entirety of the bay requires looking at how all its pieces fit together.

“We share those oyster beds with everything in the bay,” one grower observes, with the oysters providing hiding places and habitat for baby crab and a host of other animals, which in turn serve as prey species for birds, fish and marine mammals. A federal scientist found that healthy oyster grounds host 10 times as many prey species as areas of the bay dominated by shrimp. Such diversity is key to the wellbeing of every type of environment. The issue isn’t “shrimp vs. oysters,” but shrimp versus almost everything else that relies on the bay’s tidal flats. In particular, the bay is critical to the healthy and valuable Dungeness crab fishery, with baby crab enjoying the protection offered by oyster beds.

Via the work group it has convened, the state is examining possible shrimp-control options now that the pesticide imidacloprid has been barred by the Department of Ecology. Such attempts have been tried for decades, without success — particularly when it comes to the crucial need to preserve and encourage the growth of the rich biological film that forms on the bays muddy surface when it isn’t constantly churned up by shrimp. Biologists regard this skin of plankton, algae and other tiny living things as the foundation of Willapa’s food chain.

It’s possible to grow oysters in parts of Willapa Bay without controlling shrimp. But any plan that doesn’t address the shrimp population explosion will end up in an environment that remains degraded — possibly suitable for large-scale industrial shellfish production, but increasingly poor as a major nursery for juvenile crab and other marine life.

One such farming option — common in parts of Puget Sound — involves use of massive quantities of plastic, from which oysters are suspended in various ways in the water column and above the shrimp-infested bottom. According to one estimate, a large grower will increase its number of plastic components in Willapa from 50,000 this year to 500,000 in 2020. This, at a time of growing awareness of the risks of plastic in the ocean, merits significant attention.

Salmon

This has been a troubled year for salmon and other species that rely on the Pacific Ocean, which seems to be suffering from a lack of food and too much heat. Salmon returns to the Columbia and Willapa have been below forecasts — and in some cases, far below. The Alaska cod fishery has been suspended, a sign of how widespread these troubles are.

Willapa salmon controversies are in some ways a microcosm of the far messier ones on the Columbia, with fights over commercial-sport allocations, hatchery management, definitions of what constitutes a wild-run or natural salmon, total harvest allowances and timing, and so forth. While all this must at times seem like a no-win proposition to front-line fishery managers, Willapa’s salmon conflicts fit into the broader context of decades of state missteps and lack of vision.

As in the oyster-shrimp battle, enormous complexity makes it more difficult to find acceptable compromises — but not impossible.

Solutions

As a highly respected Environmental Protection Agency administrator observes elsewhere on this page, resource management that consists of relatively inexperienced state personnel delivering academic wisdom to local farmers is an approach fraught with potential for failure.

A truly smart way to address the long-term recovery of the Willapa watershed would be to form a regional council with real power to hammer out compromises between and among landowners and all the many overlapping governmental entities that play roles here. It almost goes without saying that such a move would require empowerment by the Washington Legislature. Agencies would sternly disagree.

Like it or not — and it would be accurate to say that most shellfish growers would prefer not to — some form of chemical control is likely to be required to slow the damage inflicted by shrimp. Making such a decision should pay attention to local expertise, rather than acquiescing to Seattle qualms about matters city dwellers do not understand.

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