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Capitol Dispatch

Editor’s note: Capitol Dispatch appears every Sunday during the legislative session.

If proposed bills from local lawmakers are successful, oyster farmers would once again be allowed to spray a controversial pesticide on burrowing shrimp in Western Washington, despite the Department of Ecology’s decision last year to deny use of the chemical.

The bill would also transfer regulation authority of the pesticide — imidacloprid — from Ecology to the state Department of Agriculture.

19th District Democrats Rep. Brian Blake and Sen. Dean Takko have introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that would authorize the use of imidacloprid in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor by May 2019. The treated area would be limited to 1,000 acres per year, and use of helicopters to apply the pesticides would be prohibited.

“Burrowing shrimp are getting worse and the oyster industry is suffering. If we don’t do something, somewhere, sometime, small oyster growers are going to go out of business,” Takko told The Daily News on Friday.

The shrimp, also known as ghost or blue shrimp, burrow under oyster beds, causing the oysters to sink into the mud and suffocate. They are one of the greatest threats to the state’s multi-million dollar oyster industry.

Ecology originally granted a permit for oyster farmers to spray imidacloprid on shellfish beds to control native burrowing shrimp, but was cancelled in 2015 at the growers' request due to mounting environmental concerns. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have brought forward concerns about unintended harm to other species.

The agency denied a new but similar permit in the spring last year, saying imidacloprid has “little known direct risk” on the health of humans, fish, birds and marine mammals, but has “significant, adverse, and unavoidable impacts to both sediment quality and invertebrates living in the sediments and (the) water column.” The chemical could harm juvenile worms and crustaceans, which could disrupt the food chain, according to Ecology.

“The science around imidacloprid is rapidly evolving and we can’t ignore it. New findings make it clear that this pesticide is simply too risky and harmful to be used in Washington’s waters and estuaries,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said at the time.

Ecology spokeswoman Colleen Keltz on Friday declined to discuss the specifics of the bills, which are both still in committee, but said “we stand behind our science-based decision from 2018. For that reason, we would oppose the bill.”

Takko said Ecology’s decision was a reaction against a Seattle Times article and the resulting public pressure. “Ecology’s policy is run more by politics than it is by science,” he said.

But Blake says the proposed legislation is about more than imidacloprid and Ecology’s decision. Instead, the goal is investigating many solutions to the problem, he said.

“You look at every tool you can pull out of your toolbox,” he said. “Somebody may say that playing (the rock group) AC/DC at full volume will cause the shrimp to leave. You’ve got to look at every potential tool and what is the lightest touch to the environment that accomplishes the goal of keeping farmers farming.”

To be able to study the possible impacts and benefits of imidacloprid, oyster farmers need to be allowed to spray it again so scientists can gather information, Blake said.

The bills also allocate $500,000 to Ecology and $1 million to the Department of Agriculture to study the impacts of imidacloprid use. The Department of Agriculture could also use the funds for oversight and participation in a technical advisory committee, planning and reporting activities related to continued pest management plans.

Leading theories for why burrowing shrimp populations exploded 70 years ago blame the loss of predators, such as herring and sturgeon, warmer ocean temperatures and construction of Columbia River dams, which ended the spring surges of fresh water that may have killed the shrimp.

Blake, chairman of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, oversees legislation related to agricultural concerns. But Blake rejected claims that transferring regulation authority of burrowing shrimp management to the Department of Agriculture is like the fox guarding the hen house because the bill was referred to a different committee — Environment and Energy.

He added that the move is not related to Ecology’s decision last year.

“The Department of Agriculture manages all the pesticide applications (related to agriculture) in entire state except in this instance,” Blake said. “This is about getting it in an agency that handles pesticide applications more broadly and has expertise to handle it all in one agency.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said he does not support transferring authority over to the Department of Agriculture, but “we do support the ongoing efforts to help Willapa Bay shellfish growers control native burrowing shrimp. Money was provided in the last biennial budget for agencies to work with shellfish growers on solutions and that work continues with our support.”

Aberdeen Republican Rep. Jim Walsh also has introduced a bill that would require Ecology to approve a chemical, not necessarily imidacloprid, to control burrowing shrimp in Western Washington.

“If (Ecology) is going to deny imidacloprid, then I want them to come up with another solution,” Walsh said Thursday. “I’m trying to move the frame of debate away from Ecology telling farmers what they can’t do. Let’s move it to Ecology telling farmers what they can do.”

Walsh said he also supports Blake’s bill, but he says it “will have a difficult time getting off the ground.”

“I love the piece of moving oversight over to the Department of Agriculture because it’s more appropriate. These oyster farmers are part of agriculture,” Walsh said.

Willapa Bay is one of the largest producers of shellfish in the United States. 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.

“Oyster farmers don’t want to harm the bay,” Takko said. “They want it clean. That’s their livelihood.”

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