Governor visits Willapa Bay

Oyster farmer Kathleen Nesbitt gave Gov. Jay Inslee a crash course on oyster biology during a tour of the Willapa Bay on July 25, 2017. Inslee’s Department of Ecology has now torpedoed a method of controlling burrowing shrimp in the bay. Agency personnel and elected leaders must rededicate themselves to helping the shellfish industry find viable paths to economic survival.

Nearly 13 years ago when the chemical imidacloprid was first being considered to combat the burrowing shrimp population explosion in Willapa Bay, it appeared possible it might be licensed by 2012. It was by 2012 that Northwest oyster growers had agreed to quit using a much harsher pesticide.

Earlier this month after enormous expenditures of time, money and emotion, the industry formally surrendered and gave up the imidacloprid battle. It wasn’t a total loss. State personnel and oyster growers will form a working group to again study alternative methods of controlling the shrimp. The Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association is seeking $650,000 in the coming legislative session to help pay for an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. Such plans are common in the agriculture industry, typically minimizing chemical use in favor of more complicated strategies.

It certainly is worth seeking state aid. It deserves to be promptly approved, considering the state’s culpability in going along with imidacloprid until it became politically inconvenient, and then pulling the rug out from under Willapa’s shellfish farmers.

Past efforts haven’t worked

It bears remembering that the local industry has worked on the worsening shrimp problem for decades and participated in a variety of earlier IPM research. A January 2007 “burrowing shrimp workshop” reviewed efforts to find a parasite that might kill them; encouraging crab or sturgeon to eat more of them; and using large mechanical equipment to crush or smother them. Nothing has worked well enough to be useful, apparently including a more recent experiment by the Washington Department of Natural Resources to physically destroy shrimp beds.

Nor can we eat our way out of the problem. The shrimp aren’t palatable to humans. Although they can be used as bait, the many millions of tons of them in Willapa Bay far exceed any conceivable commercial demand.

It’s difficult to imagine some other pesticide gaining acceptance and playing a part in a future industry IPM plan. In 2007 imidacloprid was considered so benign that the environmental group Toxics Coalition recommended it for flea control and considered its toxicity to be slight. And yet hardening public attitudes about chemicals in the environment — and research finding imidacloprid might play a role in harming bees — undercut state support for using it in Willapa. Even in 2007, an expert with the Washington State Commission on Pesticide Registration predicted imidacloprid wouldn’t be rejected because of genuine scientific or regulatory concerns, but because of politics.

Moving forward

The big question is whether commercial oyster farming — at something like its current scale — will be possible without spraying. Like most farmers, shellfish growers are at the same time effective conservationists and yet attached to some practices that don’t neatly fit within the contemporary framework of avoiding man-made chemicals in the environment. This conflict between lofty aspirations and pragmatic necessity might be resolved, but doing so is likely to require agencies to cooperate with citizens with an intensity that is almost impossible to imagine.

As usually cultivated here by large growers, oysters are scattered on privately owned tidelands for the majority of their life cycle. The surface they live on doesn’t have to be firm as a tabletop, but it must support their weight well enough that filter-feeding oysters can easily access the bay’s nutritious water. Burrowing shrimp are a serious problem for this type of oyster growing. While mining the sediment for food, they churn tidelands into a soft, almost quicksand-like texture, into which oysters sink and smother.

There are a number of alternative ways to grow oysters that don’t rely so much on a firm bottom. Some Willapa oysters already are grown “off bottom,” for example suspended in bags or cages from long lines. Some oystermen fear that large-scale use of such cultivation methods will alienate homeowners worried about viewsheds cluttered with plastic lines, floats and tubing. All this plastic can pose environmental risks, too. Oysters grown this way are more expensive and are often destined for the upscale half-shell restaurant market. Currently, most Willapa oysters are shucked in Pacific County for use in recipes at home and in restaurants. Turning to different growing methods can require changes in everything from pricing to transportation and marketing.

But any such thorough shift in industry practices won’t be easy. As with the state-mandated cutbacks in gillnet salmon fishing on the Columbia’s mainstem, oyster growers have expensive equipment and decades of expertise tied up in raising oysters the way their fathers and grandfathers did it. Anyone would resent being told they must give up something that works and replace it with something else that must be learned afresh, with associated new costs. Not the least of these costs will be labor, at a time when growers find it increasingly difficult to recruit workers for cold, dangerous, tough and often nighttime work on the oysterbeds. Some shellfish businesses will not survive a transition.

As we have commented before, it looks very likely that some sort of fundamental shift must happen. If the state of Washington and the environmentally aware public want oysters — and their culinary and conservation benefits — it’s time to step up and help with a generational shift in Pacific Northwest oystering. This has to be framed in ways that allow every size of operation to identify future oystering solutions that work.

It might go without saying that if growers have been anything less than fully committed to finding non-pesticide solutions for the shrimp problem, now is the time to totally engage in the attempt.

Without its scrappy, hard-working and diverse army of oyster growers, Willapa would be very poorly positioned to survive the onslaught of development swirling in the immediate future of Western Washington. Without them, the bay may be saved from pesticides but lost to everything else. They need smart partners with viable answers, not people taking potshots.

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