Gov. Jay Inslee waded into gooey mud of Willapa Bay on Tuesday to get a first-hand look at the burrowing shrimp problem threatening the bay’s multimillion dollar oyster industry.
It was his way of smoothing ruffled feathers over his June 30 veto of a measure by a local representative that might have accelerated the use of controversial pesticide to kill the shrimp.
Inslee’s visit to Goose Point Oysters at Bay Center was intended to explore the shrimp problem in person, according to Tara Lee, the deputy communications director for the governor’s office. The governor walked into Willapa Bay, decked out in waders, and trudged into the mud flats to pull the shrimp out himself.
The governor said, “They’re bigger than I thought they would be,” Lee reported.
Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, the chief operating officer of Goose Point Oysters, said Inslee’s visit “was a great opportunity to have him out on our farm and see what we’re doing. He’s never been down to our neck of the woods … so it was really great to have him down here.”
Burrowing shrimp, also known as ghost or blue shrimp, burrow under oyster beds. This causes the oysters to sink into the mud and suffocate. The shrimp are native to Willapa Bay and weren’t a problem until over-harvesting wiped out native Olympia oysters, which formed thick reefs impervious to burrowing. But the shrimp’s numbers exploded about 70 years ago. Various explanations have been offered: Loss of predators such as herring and sturgeon, warmer ocean temperatures and construction of Columbia River dams, which ended the spring surges of freshwater that may have killed the shrimp.
For years, oyster growers used a pesticide called called carbaryl. It is a neurotoxin classified as a likely human carcinogen and is banned in many countries. Objections to the pesticide arose, and the growers agreed in 2002 to phase it out over 10 years.
In January 2016, the Willapa Bay-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association applied to the Washington Department of Ecology to allow a dozen shellfish farms to use the pesticide imidacloprid in coastal estuaries. Despite objections from chefs and oyster buyers that had led growers to withdraw a previous application, the growers association contend the plan is safe.
Inslee’s veto killed an attempt by state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, to force the state Department of Ecology to commit to a schedule for approving or rejecting the imidacloprid permit.
Walsh said his measure, a proposed proviso to the state budget, would have given Ecology until the end of the summer, or “a reasonable amount of time,” to report back to the Legislature. He said he was frustrated by Inslee’s veto.
“I was not happy,” he said. “It was a modest requirement, in my opinion. It passed the House, so it got bipartisan support. Imidacloprid knocks out the shrimp, doesn’t hurt the oysters, doesn’t make a huge environmental impact.”
Imidacloprid has been linked to bee colony dieoff, and the shellfish industry itself is divided about its use. But according to a 2015 Ecology study it is less toxic to honeybees than carbaryl.
Dick Wilson, the owner of Bay Center Farms in Willapa Bay, says as he already used it on his farm during a brief window when it was legal in 2014.
“We put imidacloprid in very small amounts, around 200 grams per acre, or half a pound,” he said. “It is so diluted at that point that it has to work down. It’s also applied to bare sediment. The shrimp are the only thing down there that’s alive.”
Department of Ecology Water Quality Communications Manager Jessie Payne said she was pleased with Inslee’s veto, because the agency needs enough time to study the effects of imidacloprid and hold public comment periods.
“We don’t want surprises,” Payne said. “Last time we had a permit, there was a huge outcry about the use. We don’t want ... to make decisions under the heat of public pressure. We’d rather have time to know what we’re working with and work within regulatory framework.”
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said he supported Walsh’s effort, but he also understood Ecology’s arguments.
Payne said that Ecology plans to draft a permit by the end of the summer, put it out for public comment and make a final decision in the fall. Growers should not assume the agency will clear the use of imidacloprid, she said.
Spraying imidacloprid on oyster beds was legal in 2014, but a new permit in 2015 was cancelled after a Seattle Times article provoked a massive critical response, according to Nisbet-Moncy.
Nisbet-Moncy said she, as well as other oyster farmers, are frustrated by Inslee’s veto and wish Ecology would issue a permit more quickly.
“It’s just really unfortunate that Ecology has taken so long to issue a permit that they issued two years ago,” she said. “Hopefully, now that he’s seen (the shrimp problem), he’ll realize the issue from an ecological standpoint.”
Despite the lengthy permit process, Lee said Inslee still deeply cares about the struggles of oyster farmers.
“(Local) families rely on oysters for their livelihood, and the businesses (too),” she said. “It was really important for him to see that and see that it’s threatened. He’s taking it very seriously. He really appreciated learning more about it.”