The state is prepared to allow the shellfish industry in Willapa Bay to fail. The decision is clearly political, and not based upon science.

Share story

There’s a growing threat driving the county’s economy toward utter catastrophe.

The county’s largest base of employment is on the verge of collapse, putting at risk thousands of family-wage jobs. Family-owned businesses are facing the prospect of absolute ruin, as an entire industry that’s existed for more than a century is pushed to the brink of extinction.

If this threat remains unchecked, the impact across the county’s economy — and the thousands of families who live and work here — will be devastating.

Do you have something to say?

Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.

No, I’m not talking about King County.

If I were, you can bet that state officials would be doing all they could to address the threat, treat it like the dire emergency that it is, and ensure the scenario outlined above doesn’t come to pass.

But because I’m talking about rural Pacific County in remote southwest Washington, state officials feel perfectly content to look the other way as our jobs, businesses and our entire rural economy tremble in the balance.

Willapa Bay is the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the entire U.S. The shellfish industry is the largest employer in Pacific County and the backbone of the rural economy, responsible for more than 2,000 family-wage jobs and $102 million in annual economic output.

Farming shellfish — and protecting the pristine waterways necessary for shellfish to thrive — is more than just an industry in Pacific County, it’s a way of life, and one that has been practiced since before statehood. In fact, most shellfish produced today in Willapa Bay are grown on multigenerational, family-owned farms.

Yet, this rural way of life could soon come to an end.

An infestation of burrowing shrimp is steadily transforming the aquatic habitat into a goopy swamp of barren mud that swallows shellfish, suffocating them and turning thousands of acres of diverse and productive tide flats into barren wastelands. Shellfish farmers’ inability to treat their beds has cost $50 million over five years, and the continued lack of control of the infestation threatens to reduce shellfish production by 90 percent in the coming years.

In 2015, shellfish farmers sought a permit to apply a low-impact, EPA-approved pesticide called imidacloprid to control the burrowing shrimp infestation.

Imidacloprid is the most widely used pesticide in the world and is commonly applied to grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as to pets for flea control. The state Department of Ecology found that imidacloprid would result in zero adverse environmental impacts and issued the permit authorizing farmers to apply 8 ounces of imidacloprid per acre, up to a maximum of 2,000 acres per year — about the equivalent of a crushed aspirin tablet on every square yard of sediment.

Unlike in land-based agriculture where imidacloprid is applied directly to the seeds or plants, shellfish farmers target the sediment, which means that shellfish never have direct contact with imidacloprid, since shellfish are planted on beds long after the compound has dissipated — usually within a few days.

Imidacloprid would only to be used on shellfish beds once every four or five years. In any single year, treatments would be applied to about half a percent of Willapa Bay.

But the permit drew criticism from agenda-driven environmentalists and misinformed Seattle chefs, which prompted Ecology to cancel the permit and encourage the farmers to try again.

When the farmers came back with a significantly reduced proposal for 25 percent of the acres of the initial permit, Ecology took two years to determine that, contrary to its initial review, the farmers’ reduced proposal would result in adverse environmental impacts — despite no new scientific studies in the interim to justify that conclusion.

The conclusion is clearly political and not based upon science. A process based upon science would — 10 times out of 10 — grant the shellfish farmers their permit, without controversy or delay.

This is a travesty — and one with major adverse economic impacts.

A science-based state agency turning away from science to make a consequential economic decision based instead on political considerations — a decision that may spell the end of dozens of family-owned farms that have operated for nearly a century — carries implications not just for the rural economy of Pacific County but for farmers everywhere throughout the state, not to mention the honesty and integrity of the Department of Ecology.

This should not be how the state of Washington does business — or science.

Urbanites who castigate the current president for not respecting science should not, in turn, ignore science when it’s politically expedient to do so.

Citizens from across the state should be asking their elected leaders: Why is the state prepared to allow the shellfish industry in Willapa Bay to fail, no matter what the science says?