It’s best to think of the oyster growers of Willapa Bay as farmers, with the many of the same fundamental worries and pragmatic conservation ethics as their peers on dry land.
Worries include controlling weeds and pests, making a profit, and being allowed to use first-hand knowledge to grow safe and nutritious foods with a minimum of interference. Ethics start with being multi-generational stewards of amazing Willapa Bay — safeguarding it from environmental damage. Like all ethical farmers, they are passionate about food safety. In fact, they are fanatical about it: Willapa oysters, and the men and women who grow them, are all premium quality.
They are in the midst of what many believe to be a make-or-break struggle for economic survival, as outside forces essentially attempt to unilaterally impose an ideologically pure form of organic growing on their entire local industry.
Well intentioned but lacking in knowledge of the oyster industry and local conditions, predominantly urban activists have for decades fought efforts to use chemical sprays to control an exploding population of native burrowing shrimp. Their concern isn’t totally senseless. Nobody is delighted by the idea of pesticides being used in connection with food. After a long legal wrangle, oyster growers phased out a common but stronger chemical and made plans to substitute a highly diluted application of the pesticide Imidacloprid. Related to nicotine, it is the most widely used insecticide in the world.
Spraying opponents accurately call Imidacloprid a neurotoxin, a hot-button word that fails to acknowledge that coffee and all sorts of other common products contain neurotoxins. Should we avoid introducing neurotoxins into the environment? Perhaps so, but the inconsequential amount of Imidacloprid requested for Willapa Bay is a strange place to draw the line. Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, large quantities are used on an array of terrestrial crops.
Imidacloprid is more benign than the chemical it would replace, leaves no residue in oysters and swiftly disappears from the water. It’s not even strong enough to directly kill the shrimp, but only makes them susceptible to suffocation. Nothing but shrimp grow on infested mudflats, while oyster beds support a broad cross section of life. Fewer shrimp mean more crab, more fish, more birds — in addition to more oysters and more money in the local economy.
Most Willapa oystermen, based on decades of experience, say growing oysters on elevated plastic lines and cages above the shrimp-infested bottom is impractical in the storm and tide-tossed bay, with the plastic itself likely to cause environmental harm.
This controversy really comes down to politics and the willingness of politicians including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to throw oyster growers under the bus in order to notch a symbolic win for environmental purity. Is empty symbolism worth sacrificing a way of life that has seen Willapa Bay survive into the 21st century largely intact and healthy? Is it worth driving a stake through the economy of a struggling rural county?
Who are we going to believe? Oystermen, or out-of-town do-gooders?
Agencies, politicians and activists who have never set foot on the mud of Willapa should get out of the way and let oyster growers and the bay survive.