Seven months after public outcry derailed a plan to spray a pesticide on the oyster beds of southwest Washington, a group of shellfish growers has rekindled pursuit of a proposal to control pesky burrowing shrimp that harm oyster production.

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Celebrity chefs bemoaned it, two major shellfish producers backed out of it, and ultimately, a group of oyster farmers withdrew from it amid a fervor of bad publicity.

But seven months after public outcry derailed a plan to spray a neurotoxic pesticide on the celebrated oyster beds of southwest Washington, a group of shellfish growers has rekindled pursuit of a proposal to control pesky burrowing shrimp that harm oyster production.

Earlier this month, the Willapa Bay-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association submitted paperwork to the Washington Department of Ecology that seeks to reinstate a previously approved permit — or, if that’s not possible, apply for a new one — so that 12 local shellfish farms can spray the pesticide imidacloprid in coastal estuaries.

The shellfish growers want to use the pesticide to control native ghost shrimp and mud shrimp, which burrow into tide flats and turn firm oyster beds into gooey quicksand that can swallow and suffocate their valued shellfish.

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Last April — following several millions of dollars and years of research, and after a lengthy state review process — a larger group of shellfish growers had won a five-year permit to spray the pesticide on their commercial oyster beds in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

Then came an uprising by local chefs and other shellfish buyers, who threatened to cancel orders. Members of the public took to social media to spread outrage over the use of pesticides in pristine estuaries. The backlash led shellfish growers to request the state to withdraw the permit.

Dave Nisbet, owner of the Nisbet Oyster Company, said last week the oyster farmers were “taken aback” by the bad press last year and so sought to have Ecology temporarily withdraw the permit.

“But the permit got totally pulled, to our surprise,” he said.

Now, the smaller group of applicants made up of family-run shellfish farms says their future depends on the pest-management plan, which they hope to start as soon as June. They contend the pesticide plan is safe, and that controlling shrimp populations not only helps oyster production but enhances the overall health of Washington’s estuaries.

“We really have to have a control in place for this summer,” Nisbet said. “If we can’t, we’ll lose our oyster beds or a portion of them. There’s an economic loss right away, and the secondary effect is damage to the biodiversity of the estuaries.”

Absent from the group’s application this time are two of the largest shellfish companies — Taylor Shellfish Farms and Coast Seafoods. Both firms, which unlike the other applicants also grow shellfish in other areas, backed out of last year’s plan; Taylor cited the public controversy.

Nisbet and some of the remaining dozen shellfish growers said that going forward, they’ll seek to treat only as needed about 500 acres of tideflats — one-third the area approved for spraying last year — under a five-year permit.

Imidacloprid would be applied only by hand, using boats and ATVs to access the tideflats, they said. The farmers wouldn’t use helicopters, limiting aerial drift of the chemical, they said.

The formal application still lists aerial application as a possibility, however.

Ecology Department spokesman Chase Gallagher said agency officials are now reviewing the growers’ paperwork, which was filed Jan. 8. Because the state canceled the initial permit after receiving the withdrawal letter in May, the applicants likely will need to go through another full review, he added.

“Our attorneys are looking at everything, but the basic understanding is that once you cancel a permit, you can’t bring it back,” Gallagher said.

A new application would trigger a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review, which would include public comment periods and likely take several months, Gallagher said.

For decades, Washington’s oyster farmers used a different pesticide called carbaryl to control burrowing shrimp. In 2002, the industry agreed to phase out its use over 10 years after environmental groups sued over the issue.

Kim Patten, who heads the tiny Washington State University research station on Willapa Bay, has since tested various alternatives while searching for an effective replacement. He believed he found one with the widely-used imidacloprid (ee-mid-uh-cloe-prid), which can paralyze shrimp so they suffocate in their muddy holes.

Patten’s field-testing found imidacloprid was effective at reducing burrowing shrimp while not having major detrimental impacts on other aquatic life.

“It’s 1,000 times more benign than carbaryl, in terms of impacts to organisms,” Patten said.

Because the pesticide is applied to the tideflats — and oysters are seeded months later — residue from imidacloprid doesn’t get into the shellfish that people will eat, he added.

Not all science says the pesticide is environmentally safe, however.

Earlier this month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced new findings of a preliminary risk assessment showing imidacloprid’s use on crops that attract bees, such as citrus and cotton, “potentially poses risk to hives.”

The EPA plans to release another assessment of the pesticide’s impacts on aquatic life in December.

Patten and Erik Johansen, who coordinates the Washington Department of Agriculture’s pesticide registration program, separately said applying imidacloprid to estuaries shouldn’t harm bees.

“You’re applying it to shellfish beds, where there aren’t any bees,” Johansen said.

Oyster farmers also would need the state agriculture department’s approval to register imidacloprid. The agency previously granted them registration of the pesticide with the conditions that growers provided further research showing it didn’t have adverse environmental effects. That registration expired in December, and the shellfish growers have yet to submit a renewal application, Johansen said last week.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also have raised concerns that imidacloprid could be harmful if introduced to aquatic environments.

Some other Willapa Bay oyster growers also oppose the plan.

Fritzi Cohen, longtime owner of the Moby Dick Hotel and Oyster Farm, said she stopped harvesting oysters in 2007 after she detected chemicals used by other growers had drifted into her beds. Cohen, who promotes organic oystering, has fought the use of chemicals in Willapa Bay for 20 years.

“Pesticides in general are not benign,” Cohen said. “Pesticides kill, that’s what they do. These growers, they’re just doing what they do best: employing bad science to promote their own goals to the detriment of everyone else.”

But the shellfish farmers seeking to apply imidacloprid in southwest Washington, which produces about one-quarter of the nation’s oysters, say they’re convinced its use is safe.

“Some of our families have been in these communities, farming, for 140 years,” said Kathleen Moncy, of Nisbet Oyster Company. “To suggest we’d do anything that would be harmful to the environment is very hurtful to us.”

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