State regulators have denied Washington shellfish growers a permit to use a controversial pesticide, saying imidacloprid is “too risky for Washington’s environment.”
The move leaves the state’s multi-million dollar oyster industry with limited options to control burrowing shrimp, a nemesis that destroys oyster beds.
“We’ve been working with this community of growers for years to move away from chemical pesticides and find a safer alternative to control burrowing shrimp,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a press release. “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.”
The Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association requested a permit from the state to use imidacloprid on oyster and clam beds to control native burrowing shrimp in January 2016.
Burrowing shrimp, also known as ghost or blue shrimp, burrow under oyster beds. This causes the oysters to sink into the mud and suffocate.
Washington Department of Ecology’s decision upset Dick Wilson, the owner of Bay Center Farms in Willapa Bay, who said Ecology “cannot understand the science of what’s going on.”
“It’s a sad day for the bay,” he said. “This is a political move and it’s going to hurt every animal that depends on the bay. It’s going to hurt the economy, it’s going to hurt crab fisherman and oyster growers.”
Wilson said his company has already lost 10,000 acres of inner-tidal land in Willapa Bay because of burrowing shrimp.
The Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association Monday afternoon issued a statement denouncing Ecology’s decision. It stated that the agency had “reversed itself completely” from its own Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement from September.
“We believe this decision is based on politics and not on sound science,” Ken Wiegardt, president of the association, said in a press release. “If this political, non-scientific decision stands, burrowing shrimp will continue to destroy our oyster beds and severely damage our industry, our estuary and our entire rural economy.”
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.
In January Ecology completed a study on imidacloprid, saying that it has “little known direct risk” on the health of humans, fish, birds and marine mammals. However, in Monday’s press release, the agency said it found that imidacloprid also has “significant, adverse, and unavoidable impacts to both sediment quality and invertebrates living in the sediments and (the) water column.”
Ecology’s also said imidacloprid use could result in damaging effects to juvenile worms and crustaceans and that the pesticide could disrupt the food chain.
Ecology estimated that the pesticide would affect five acres of tideland for every acre it is applied.
“Based on the research and data, Ecology determined that the oyster growers’ proposal cannot meet the legal requirements of the Sediment Management Standards and Clean Water Act that protect sediment and water quality,” the press release said.
State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, a supporter of imidacloprid use, called Ecology “frankly kind of dictatorial” in a phone interview Monday.
“We saw this coming,” he said. “It’s disappointing. It’s discouraging. But it’s not surprising.”
Walsh said the decision is a blow to small business. He was especially frustrated with the lengthy Ecology review process, which he noted was “adding insult to injury.”
“When bad news is coming, you like to get it straight and soon, and this has been dragged out and, in my opinion, politicized, and just made long and arduous and difficult,” he said.
Jim Pendowski, who manages Ecology’s clean-up program, said the long process was due to the agency reviewing hundreds of documents, over 8,400 public comments and waiting for evaluations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He also said the oyster growers needed time to develop documents required for their applications.
Walsh said he and some oyster growers have spoken with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office about other plans to combat burrowing shrimp. Some ideas on the table were limited use of pesticides (which haven’t been determined yet), using non-chemical approaches and letting oyster growers use unaffected state lands.
Rich Doenges, who manages water quality in the Southwest Region for Ecology, said the state Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and the Washington State Conservation Commission are exploring non-chemical control measures to fight burrowing shrimp.
However, Walsh said he believes none of the programs will be as effective as using imidacloprid.
Ghost 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. Shrimp’s numbers exploded about 70 years ago.
Two of the leading theories for the surge are 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.