Burrowing shrimp

Burrowing shrimp taken from Willapa Bay: The shrimp kill oysters by undermining them and causing them to suffocate in the mud. Oyster farmers are appealing a state decision not to approve a pesticide that kills the shrimp.

“Neonic” is a word that sets off alarm bells among those who are reflexively opposed to pesticides on farms and ranches.

Neonics — the common term for neonicotinoid pesticides — were blamed for the problems honeybees were encountering in relation to colony collapse disorder, when large numbers of bees would die or disappear. Researchers ultimately determined several factors were to blame in addition to pesticide exposure, including varroa mites, poor nutrition and other stressors, according to the USDA.

Among the problems identified is making sure that pesticides are not applied nearby while honeybees are pollinating orchards or crops. If a farmer sprays pesticide on his crop and a neighbor is pollinating trees, the result could be a disaster.

In the meantime, pesticide skeptics have zeroed in on neonics as a primary reason pesticides are bad for bees — and everything else. This disregards ample evidence that when used properly, pesticides are safe and effective.

Which brings us the latest context in which neonics have found their way into the spotlight. Oyster farmers and researchers have for years worked to gain Washington state approval for using the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid to protect oysters from ghost shrimp. The finger-sized creatures burrow up to three feet below the surface of the mud and cause oysters to sink into it and suffocate.

Oyster farmers asked the Washington Department of Ecology for permission to experimentally spray imidacloprid on 500 acres of mudflats in an effort to stop the ghost shrimp from killing oysters. Kim Patten, a Washington State University researcher, has found that the pesticide is the only practical way for the farmers to protect their oysters from the shrimp.

Oysters are raised by family farmers, and the multi-million-dollar shellfish industry is the largest employer in Pacific County.

Yet it’s that word “neonic” that seems to have put Seattle’s anti-pesticide crowd on alert opposing the use of imidacloprid. They took to social media — the source of most misinformation these days — to holler about neonics.

Except they forgot one thing: The main alleged problem with neonics is their impact on honeybees and other pollinators when misapplied during bloom. Honeybees are not known to inhabit oyster beds or mudflats. The use of neonics on mudflats would have nothing to do with pollinators. Other impacts from spraying — short-term loss of non-targeted invertebrates that inhabit oyster beds — are made up for by big near-term improvements in habitat quality for a host of other species that the shrimp displace. Dr. Richard Wilson, a Bay Center oyster grower, has convincingly demonstrated that tidal flats with fewer shrimp generate a rich biological film that nurtures everything from aquatic insects to crab.

Oyster farmers say they will appeal Ecology’s decision to the Pollution Control Hearings Board. They say they have a decade of research to prove the safety and effectiveness of imidacloprid in aquatic applications.

The hearings board isn’t necessarily the final arbiter of whether oyster growers can use imidacloprid to protect their crop. But time and other factors, including the cost of litigation, are not on growers’ side.

State Lands Commission Hilary Franz made the welcome gesture last year of funding experiments in mechanical control of shrimp. If state leaders truly want to find an effective non-chemical answer for shrimp control, attention and funding must be ramped up. Gov. Jay Inslee talks a good show of supporting rural economies. This is his chance to do more than talk, by making certain funding is adequate to ensure a future for the county’s first and foremost industry.

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