A 2015 proposal to spray some Washington oyster beds with imidacloprid, a neurotoxic pesticide, was withdrawn after a deluge of opposition from local chefs and the public. Now a new plan is in the works.

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It’s back on the table: Less than a year and a half after public outcry stopped a plan to spray imidacloprid on Washington oyster beds, there’s a new proposal to use the neurotoxic pesticide in the same manner.

The 2015 plan was withdrawn after a deluge of opposition from local chefs and the public.

The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) calls the latest proposition “similar, but not identical” to the previous one, and it comes from the same group, the Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association. The application of the pesticide to the oyster beds is intended to combat the proliferation of burrowing shrimp that destabilize the tideflats, causing oysters to sink down into it and suffocate.

Fewer acres of Washington oyster beds would be sprayed — 485 acres in Willapa Bay and 15 acres in Grays Harbor, rather than 2,000 acres total in the previous permit. However, those figures are per year, meaning, according to a DOE report, “it is possible that over the 5-year term of the permit, the total acreage to be treated within Willapa Bay could range from 485 to 2,485 acres, and within Grays Harbor could range from 15 to 75 acres.” Additionally, the tidelands would be treated with imidacloprid by hand or with ground equipment, rather than the originally proposed helicopters.

The Washington State Department of Ecology has already conducted an assessment of the potential environmental impacts of the plan to spray oyster beds with the pesticide. In an announcement, the agency says that while there is “Little known direct risk to fish, birds, marine mammals, and human health,” the spraying of imidacloprid involves “immediate adverse, unavoidable impacts to juvenile worms, crustaceans, and shellfish to the areas treated… and the nearby areas covered by incoming tides,” “potential indirect impacts to fish and birds if food sources are disrupted,” and “significant uncertainty about the cumulative impacts and other unknown impacts to other marine invertebrates and life cycles.”

Furthermore, the Department of Ecology notes, “There are still knowledge gaps about imidacloprid. Further research is needed,” and that “There is also a growing public concern about imidacloprid, which is a neonicitinoid pesticide.” The full Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is available for review online.

The Department of Ecology is soliciting public comments on the proposal from now through November 1. Comments may be submitted online through the Department’s website, or at public hearings in South Bend on October 7 or in Olympia on October 10.

While Taylor Shellfish Farms is part of the Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association (WGHOGA) and worked with the Washington Department of Ecology for years to gain approval for the use of imidacloprid, the company’s director of public affairs, Bill Dewey, says, “We are not among the growers intending to use the imidacloprid. It is a subset of the members pursuing the use. Taylor Shellfish made the commitment to our customers in 2015 that we would not use imidacloprid and [we] are standing by that.”

Some Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor oyster growers have cited economic losses due to the burrowing shrimp, saying that without some control of them, they’ll lose their oyster beds or a portion of them. On their website protectwillapabay.org, they defend the use of imidacloprid as “A Responsible, Ecologically-Conscious Integrated Pest Management Program.”

Amalia Walton, legal counsel for WGHOGA, also cites ecological necessity for the plan. “An ecosystem imbalance that’s not natural that has caused proliferation of the shrimp and turned the bay into a wasteland, where nothing else can live or grow. There’s not food for oysters or the other animals who would naturally be living there,” she says. “There will still be burrowing shrimp in the bay, it’s just keeping the number to their natural, original state, back when more fresh water was coming into the bay and there were more natural predators.” She also brings up economic issues. “Historically, there have been oyster farms in that area since before statehood,” she says. “A lot of them are family farms… They’re the largest private employer in the county. There’s a huge economic impact if those farms no longer exist.”

Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, a second-generation oyster farmer and now COO of family-owned Goose Point Oysters on Willapa Bay, concurs. “The need to control burrowing shrimp is just basic to the ecology of the estuary,” she says. “If you look at where you have oysters, where you have eelgrass, you also have Dungeness crab rearing habitats. When you have an extreme burrowing shrimp population, it takes all of that out of the equation.” She says the use of a pesticide like imidacloprid is “an extremely targeted approach,” wherein spraying five acres can create “a protective boundary” for much larger growing areas. “The use of a pesticide in order to do it has been the only means available to people,” she says. “What do we do? We can’t just watch everything dissolve into nothing.”

Seattle chef Renee Erickson says of the new proposal, “It’s really hard to imagine that anyone can feel good about the need to spray a neurotoxin in our incredible waters to kill sand shrimp for the sole purpose of growing oysters… We need to demand that Washington State is a leader in aquaculture farming policies.” Restaurateur Tom Douglas comments, “Imidacloprid is considered the main culprit in the collapse of our bee colonies and, in higher levels, is toxic to mammals — that means us! This is why the European Union has banned this pesticide in their waters, and we should too.”

Ghost shrimp are suffocating Washington’s oysters, says WSU Extension’s Kim Patten. With the use of neurotoxic pesticides off the table, Patten fears there are no viable pest control options left. (Steve Ringman and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)