Willapa Bay

Oyster farmer Kathleen Nesbitt gave Washington Gov. Jay Inslee a crash course on oyster biology during a tour of Willapa Bay in 2017.

Nearly 13 years ago, when 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 oyster industry formally surrendered and gave up the imidacloprid battle. It wasn’t a total loss.

Washington 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 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.

It bears remembering that the local industry has worked on the worsening shrimp problem for decades and participated in a variety of earlier 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 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.

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 effective conservationists 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,” 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.

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 River’s main stem, oyster growers have expensive equipment and decades of expertise tied up in raising oysters the way their fathers and grandfathers did.

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

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.

(3) comments

Jennifer Nightingale

What a balanced, nuanced, quality piece of writing. We are so lucky to have such writing in our community.

Stel Carana

Correction: After almost 6 DECADES!!

Stel Carana

After over almost of decade of poisoning Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, what's a few more decades of indiscriminate pesticide use? Who would want to eat an oyster from these bays? Without pesticides and these non-native oysters and clams, these estuaries might actually recover from over 150 years of state and industry abuse. The industry and state's primary "scientist" assuring everyone that these deadly pesticides are OK is himself a shellfish farming, with a commercial lease with Northern Oyster, one of the big wealthy shellfish families in Willapa Bay. I say good riddance to pesticides and the non-native industry that they support.

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