Taylor Shellfish says the pesticide is safe for use in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, but Seattle eateries are scrambling to make sure the oysters they serve aren’t affected.

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Renee Erickson was on the phone to her oyster suppliers as soon as she heard the news about Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

As chef/owner of several Seattle restaurants, including renowned oyster bar The Walrus and The Carpenter, the region’s famous bivalves are her bread and butter, so she was “horrified” by a newly approved plan to spray some Washington oyster beds with imidacloprid, a neurotoxic pesticide, starting as soon as low tide on May 17.

With headlines like “Washington state turns to neurotoxins to save its oysters” (Bloomberg) and “Disbelief over state plan to spray neurotoxin into oyster beds” (in The Seattle Times), Erickson was facing dismay from patrons like the one who emailed at 6 a.m. Wednesday to say, “If this happens, I’ll be boycotting all your establishments.”

That dismay, as it happens, was misdirected: Erickson does not sell Willapa or Grays oysters.

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But plenty of other people do.

While there’s no organic certification for shellfish — water can only be controlled so much — the romantic idea of pristine oysters grown in sparkling local waters, and gathered by small-scale farmers on the tide flats, is often a reality here. But it’s also true that oysters are big business in Washington, with larger operators getting into sophisticated practices more in line with industrial agriculture — like spraying pesticide from helicopters.

RELATED STORY: Shellfish producer backs away from pesticide spraying (May 1, 2015)

This particular instance is intended to combat the proliferation of a species of burrowing shrimp that destabilizes the tideflats, causing oysters to sink down into the silty sand and suffocate.

Fully 25 percent of all oysters in the nation come from Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. And according to Bill Dewey, manager of public affairs at Taylor Shellfish Farms, 95 percent of oyster growers in that area are members of the Willapa/Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association — the entity awarded the pesticide permit.

Taylor Shellfish, a $75 million international company with more than 650 employees, is the biggest farmed-shellfish operation in the country. It worked with the Washington Department of Ecology to get approval for the pesticide use, and says it’s done a lot of testing.

Owner Bill Taylor maintains the neurotoxin is safe, though its manufacturers specifically state it’s not for use in water, and both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have sounded the alarm about unknown consequences.

Taylor says his company and the Department of Ecology have been “trying to look at environmental effects on other species” of imidacloprid since the mid-2000s, finding that the pesticide has “less effects” than the one used previously, carbaryl.

“There’s been a lot of work done,” Taylor says, “a lot of rigorous work on the effect of the pesticide in the environment there. Part of the permit going forward is continuing to look at effects, various residue left after.”

The permit also says oysters cannot be harvested within 30 days of spraying.

Taylor invokes sustainable practices as part of its mission, but, as restaurateur Erickson puts it, “It’s another category of farming.”

And regardless of how safe spraying oysters with neurotoxic pesticide may or may not be, those aren’t oysters her customers want to eat.

Erickson says she cultivates trust with her sources, visiting farms and learning their methods. Still, she reached out immediately to the Hama Hama Co. on Hood Canal, saying, “Tell me we’re not doing this!”

They’re not. Hama Hama’s Lissa James says, “We don’t spray our beach with anything, or any of the beaches that we farm.” While oyster beds like theirs aren’t free of the native burrowing shrimp, the population remains naturally under control.

We’ll just really try to be smart about it and ask what’s going on, then find out what we can do to help or educate people.” - Matthew Dillon, chef and restaurant owner

Southern Puget Sound’s tiny Emerald Acres Oyster Co., which consists of husband and wife Kevin and Stephanie Riley, plus four part-time employees, runs into the burrowing-shrimp problem “all the time,” says Kevin.

Their practice is to move their oysters, which are kept in bags; Kevin likens it to rotating crops. “It takes a lot more money and time,” he says, adding it sounds like pesticide use “is a quick fix. It’s a scary thing to think that they’re just gonna do it. We see it as profit over hard work.”

Kevin says Emerald Acres is “all about natural farming. … But that’s not an option for Taylor, ’cause they do so many oysters.”

According to Margaret Pilaro Barrette, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, the use of pesticides in oyster cultivation on the West Coast and Alaska is confined to Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. “Nobody else is treating for shrimp,” she says. What about other pesticides or herbicides? “Not really. No … Most of my members tout the fact that they don’t do anything to get their crops to grow.”

Jim Drohman, the chef/owner of Seattle’s Cafe Presse and Le Pichet, is especially worried because imidacloprid is increasingly linked to honeybee-colony collapse disorder. His customers, he says, will be deeply concerned.

“To discover that something we love like oysters, thought to be grown in the pure water … to suddenly learn that pesticides are being used, I think that people will be shocked and have questions.” Drohman is contacting his suppliers to be certain he won’t be serving pesticide-sprayed oysters.

Matthew Dillon, the chef/owner of Seattle restaurants Sitka & Spruce, the Corson Building, Bar Sajor and the London Plane, believes the use of pesticides on oysters amounts to industrial agriculture in the place you’d least expect it. “It seems really strange and sad,” he says. He, too, sources oysters from small producers. “We’ll just really try to be smart about it and ask what’s going on,” he says, “then find out what we can do to help or educate people.”

Dillon, who farms a minuscule number of oysters himself on Vashon Island, has an opinion on the situation in Willapa Bay. “The shrimp are telling us something: Don’t grow oysters out here right now,” he says. “They know what they’re doing much more than we do, the shrimp and the oysters.”