A couple of chefs accomplished in a few days what two powerful federal agencies couldn’t do in more than a year: head off the plan to spray pesticides on oyster beds.
What just happened with the oysters and the pesticides wasn’t the power of the press. It was the power of the chefs.
A plan to spray a neurotoxic pesticide on oyster beds in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor had survived a complex regulatory process to win an approval that surprised even its backers. Opposition from both major federal agencies in charge of protecting marine wildlife, which would typically be a huge hurdle, wasn’t enough to table this idea.
But a few days of criticism from superstar chefs, and wham.
Taylor Shellfish, the largest oyster farmer, announced Friday it was pulling out of the pesticide spray plan due to overwhelmingly negative feedback from its customers. The turning point was when some of Seattle’s celebrity chefs said they were horrified and wouldn’t be able to get diners to eat oysters grown there.
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“It’s amazing what effect the chefs had,” says Laura Hendricks, one of the few citizens protesting the pesticide plan from the beginning. From her home in Gig Harbor she heads a little-known environmental group called Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat.
“We’ve been out here pretty much alone on this, making the environmental arguments, for years,” she said. “The chefs exceeded that in a day.”
It’s testament to the growing force of the organic food movement.
But this story is mostly one of failure, on the part of the press, the environmental movement and, in my view, the state.
Many readers asked why we didn’t report on this plan to kill burrowing shrimp with a pesticide until after it had been approved. My awkward answer is: I didn’t know about it. Some coastal newspapers had covered some small hearings on it, but I heard about it from a reader only about two weeks ago. Then a Portland-based writer, Bill Donahue, published a story about it online, in Bloomberg Business.
It would have been better, admittedly, if we had covered this story long before it got to this final stage.
The permit makes Washington the only state in the nation to allow the spraying of this controversial pesticide, imidacloprid, into marine waters. I would have thought environmental groups around here would have been howling, but for the most part they weren’t.
Some local environmentalists say they are allies with the oyster industry on a host of green causes, such as clean-water rules and climate-change emission controls.
“I’d guess a lot of environmental groups felt conflicted because the oyster industry is so good on so many issues we care about,” says Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest. “It’s like if your friend is doing something bad, what do you do? Maybe some didn’t want to get in the middle of it.”
Some Oregon-based environmental groups have been active in opposing pesticide sprays into the ocean. But that distant opposition didn’t register in the Seattle news market.
“I think people never believed the state would actually issue a permit for such a crazy plan, so they tuned it out,” Hendricks theorized.
What happens now? The permit remains active, so some oyster farmers may still spray. The plan still is being defended as safe and ecologically sound by the state (you can read its response at ecologywa.blogspot.com/2015/05/new-oyster-permit-substantially-reduces.html). The gist of the argument is that this new pesticide is an improvement over the old one, carbaryl, which is being phased out.
It’s a stance that feels stuck in the past. If possible, there should be zero pesticides sprayed into the public’s marine estuaries. If the Department of Ecology and the nation’s supposedly greenest governor aren’t going to push for that, who will?
I spoke Friday with an oyster farmer in Grays Harbor, one of the two spray zones, who insists no pesticides is possible.
Erika Buck of FMO Aquaculture grows and harvests about a million oysters a year, working around the problems caused by the shrimp. She doesn’t spray, she says, and won’t.
“They say, ‘Oh, you can’t grow out here without chemicals,’ ” Buck says. “Well, yes you can. I’m proof of it.”
“These are all good people,” she added. “But there’s this inertia for using chemicals. I think it’s because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
The way we’ve always done it — it’s one of society’s most powerful forces. Almost as powerful, it turns out, as the chefs.