Willapa Bay oysters

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Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

The multimillion-dollar Willapa Bay oyster industry is getting closer to finally getting a decision on its use of a controversial pest-control chemical after the state released a final environmental review on the pesticide Friday.

The state Department of Ecology study found that using imidacloprid to control the burrowing shrimp has “little known direct risk” on the health of humans, fish, birds and marine mammals. However, it might have other negative impacts on the ecosystem at the base on the food chain.

The agency said it will announce a decision on the industry’s application to use imidacloprid in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor “in about a month,” a press release states.

Other findings from the study conclude that imidacloprid:

Would have “significant impacts” on small invertebrate organisms living in the mud at the bottom of the bay.

Negatively impacts juvenile worms and crustaceans.

Would likely cause “indirect impacts” to fish and birds if the food chain is interrupted.

Ecology spokeswoman Jessie Payne added that Ecology found imidacloprid, once sprayed on oyster beds, could be spread by tides to other areas more powerfully than the agency initially expected.

The agency said it plans on using the study to help make its decision on the Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association’s permit request.

One major public supporter of using imidacloprid, state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said he tried to contact Ecology Director Maia Bellon after he discovered the agency had completed its study and later received a voicemail from her explaining the agency’s review. Walsh described his feelings towards Ecology’s findings as “a little pessimistic.”

“Frankly, based on the tone of that voicemail, I’m worried about the tone of some of the framing of the findings,” he said. “It seems like this is heading for a bad result, meaning no permit.”

Walsh said he wants more information about the finding that tides will spread the pesticide to a greater extent than previously thought. He also wants more detail about why Ecology concludes imidacloprid could be a hazard to juvenile crustaceans.

Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, the chief operating officer of Goose Point Oysters in Bay Center, said her company is “seriously concerned” about Ecology’s final environmental review. She agrees with Walsh that the agency will likely deny the permit application.

Nisbet-Moncy added that the study “re-characterized” findings from the original 2015 environmental impact statement on imidacloprid, particularly in the section describing impacts to invertebrates and sediment. These changes come despite Ecology not presenting any new scientific information during its public comment periods in South Bend and Olympia in October, she said.

“The science should be the backbone of a regulatory agency when it makes decisions,” Nisbet-Moncy said. “We believe they are using political pressure to deny the permit.”

Nisbet-Moncy said she plans on talking with Ecology before it announces a decision as well as Gov. Jay Inslee, who visited Goose Point Oysters in July.

“Getting (Inslee) involved is our next step,” she said. “We have calls with him already.”

Walsh said he had a similar idea, as he expressed interest in discussing the study with Bellon and her staff.

“If the talks can happen in an informal way, that would be great,” he said. “But if not, we … will do whatever it takes to get a good, science-based conclusion with this process and not load this process with non-scientific considerations.”

Payne made clear that the agency has not made a decision yet, and if Ecology did approve the permit, spraying would still have to meet state sediment and water quality protection laws.

According to Inslee’s communications director, Tara Lee, the governor is “aware of this issue and also of Ecology’s process.” Lee brought up Inslee’s July visit to Goose Point as well.

The governor, she said in an email, “has a good understanding of the complexities around this issue and appreciates the work done by the Department of Ecology to review and evaluate it.”

Willapa Bay is one of the largest producers of shellfish in the United States, and a 2013 analysis by the Pacific Shellfish Institute estimated that the Pacific County aquaculture industry generated $90 million in total economic output and nearly 1,600 jobs in 2010. The Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association estimates that failure to control burrowing shrimp would reduce oyster production 70 percent to 80 percent.

The industry has been searching for decades for an alternative to carbaryl, a pesticide that kills the shrimp effectively but is toxic to fish, crab and other life. Oyster growers agreed to discontinue carbaryl use in 2012 and have been trying to get permission to replace it with imidacloprid. But environmental groups and some consumer advocates have opposed its use. Ecology’s decision on the matter has been put off several times.

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