Ghost Shrimp Still Haunting the Shellfish Industry on Willapa Bay

Neotrypaea_californiensisDLC2007-01sIn the world of toxics use reduction – which was my world in the 1990s and early 2000s as an environmental engineer at the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) – it’s a common trick to substitute one chemical for another when the one you were using is either heavily regulated, becomes illegal to use, or too expensive (or all three). Well, such was the case for the shellfish industry on Willapa Bay, that used a neurotoxin called carbaryl from the 1960s up until 2003 to control a small, native shrimp called ghost shrimp, which has the unfortunate tendency to burrow through the sand bars in the bay and suffocate the poor little oysters that are growing up there.

Problem is, carbaryl is not only deadly to ghost shrimp, but toxic to other crustaceans, fish (esp. salmon), small insects (e.g. bees), cats, and even humans. The EPA considers carbaryl “likely to be carcinogenic in humans” due to increased tumor production in mice.

According to Larry Warnberg, a former oyster grower in Nahcotta, “the emergence of burrowing shrimp as a pest coincided with the development of dredge-harvesting oysters at high tide, dragging a large basket to scoop up the oysters, ripping out submerged aquatic vegetation and oyster shell, leaving behind sand/mud, a perfect habitat for an invasion of burrowing shrimp.”

After telling me about his non-chemical methods of raising and harvesting oysters, Warnberg added, “In 1989 Fritzi and Edward [Cohen] purchased the idle and deteriorating Moby Dick Hotel, along with a few acres of adjacent tideland, which I helped them develop for off-bottom oyster culture, supplying their in-house restaurant. They became strong allies in the struggle to keep toxins out of the bay; we formed the Ad Hoc Coalition for Willapa Bay, which is still working on new pesticide issues. In 2003 we reached a Settlement Agreement with the Growers, after appealing their NPDES [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] carbaryl pesticide permit at the State Pollution Control Hearings Board [PCHB]. As a result, carbaryl was scheduled to be phased out over nine years, ending in 2012. The Agreement stipulates that the Growers would only pursue non-chemical growing methods, but they immediately obtained USDA funding to hire Kim Patten [Washington State University Extension agent] and others to find a pesticide alternative to carbaryl, resulting in the permitting of a neonicotinoid, imidicloprid. [Ecology] gave the Growers what they applied for on April 16 of this year, a 5-year NPDES permit.”

Now you might be familiar with this new chemical that the shellfish growers were going to switch to, or if not, to the general category of pesticides that the new chemical belongs to – the neonics, or neonicotinoids. These are the chemicals implicated in colony collapse disorder that has been decimating honeybee populations around the world. Banned in Europe, but still used in the U.S. as a general purpose pesticide in homes & gardens and on crops, imidacloprid has never been used in aquatic environments before, and the permit the shellfish growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor got was heavily dependent on monitoring. Growers worried the allowed doses would not be sufficient to kill the ghost shrimp, but they were hoping the new chemical would be as close to a “drop-in substitute” as possible for the old standby, carbaryl.

Well, in what can only be described as a series of unlikely events, the new permit regulating the use of imidacloprid on oyster beds in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor was revoked by Ecology at the suggestion of the Willapa-Grays Harbor Shellfish Growers Association (WGHSGA) on May 3, less than a month after the permit was approved. Spraying was due to begin in mid-May. This is after a multi-year research effort costing the industry and taxpayers lots of money, a multi-year permitting process led by Ecology, including many public hearings and the processing of hundreds of comments, and untold efforts of many environmental groups and individuals fighting the proposed permit before approval.

We may never know the whole story, but here’s a short summary of the more obvious and known events and press:

April 16: Ecology gives final approval to the permit.

April 24: Bloomberg Mazagine publishes a story titled Washington State Turns to Neurotoxins to Save Its Oysters – A pesticide from the group of chemicals linked to colony collapse disorder will now be sprayed in US waters. What could go wrong?

April 28: Danny Westneat’s column in the Seattle Times is published, titled (borrowing a little from the Bloomberg article) Disbelief over state plan to spray neurotoxin into oyster beds – The state has approved plans to spray in Willapa Bay a neurotoxic pesticide that has a warning right on the bottle: “Do not apply directly to water.” What could go wrong?

May 1: Respected Seattle weatherman Cliff Mass’ blog entry, titled Oyster victory: But there is more left to do, talks about the sudden reversal and Taylor Shellfish’s statement that they would not spray imidacloprid on their oyster beds in Willapa Bay after hearing loud and clear from their customers. Later that day, the WGHSGA released a statement that they would request the permit be revoked. (Also check out Mass’ blog entry, Oysters and Pesticides: The Washington State Department of Ecology Stumbles, published April 29.)

May 3: A story in the Seattle Times, State, growers scrap pesticide permit for oyster beds after outcry, tells of the delivery of a letter to Ecology from WGHSGA withdrawing their permit application, and of Ecology’s intention of withdrawing the permit the next day.

So, what the heck happened? It’s very rare for a NPDES permit to be withdrawn without a PCHB hearing and/or lawsuit, and the industry (and Ecology) had spent all that time and money to put together the permit. Well, according to some of the articles I read (including those above), it seems that some pretty important restauranteurs in the Puget Sound area were not amused to learn that their local oysters were soon to be sprayed with bee killer, and basically told the growers that they would stop buying their oysters if this spraying occurred.

I also learned from some closer to home sources that efforts were made locally to contact these very customers of the shellfish growers, the growers themselves, and Ecology, letting them know of the permit and its implications. Even local legislators were brought in to put pressure on Ecology.

It worked.

Which is the more amazing because most previous efforts to combat the shellfish industry here have been either unsuccessful or costly, or both. The most prominent example is the eradication of Spartina alterniflora, a cordgrass that proliferated in Willapa Bay (and all over the west coast) after being used to ship oyster seed in the early 1900s from the east coast. Warnberg tells the story from his perspective:

In ‘89 Monsanto launched a marketing program targeting Spartina, trying to sell its herbicide glyphosate for aquatic plants. It is known as Round-Up in agriculture; they renamed it Rodeo for aquatic use. They used some local scientists and The Nature Conservancy to demonize the grass, successfully getting it on the State Noxious Weed List, claiming it would cover all the tideflats eventually if unchecked. The oystermen signed on to their program, not because they felt threatened by Spartina, but because they were already using carbaryl for shrimp control, and didn’t want any enviros challenging pesticide use in their domain. So the Ad Hoc Coalition mounted a legal challenge of the herbicide permit at the PCHB. We went up against a gang of their lawyers, and lost our appeal. They sprayed some Rodeo, but it didn’t work very well. Turns out Spartina has a waxy cuticle, and the herbicide wasn’t absorbed enough to kill the grass. Monsanto lost that round – their product was ineffective.

A more potent herbicide was brought in, we challenged again, lost again, but delayed widespread spraying for eight years until 1998 when a major eradication effort was mounted. Over the next four years crews worked diligently to kill about 10,000 acres of Spartina. It was painful to watch, seemed like ripping the scab off a wound. Spartina was helping the bay heal from a century of abuse. In a few years the negative effects began to show: mud trapped by the Spartina meadows was released by storm waves, increasing turbidity, and covering clam and oyster beds. The decaying root mat, often two feet deep, rotted anaerobically, releasing toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, killing wild oyster larvae.

Continuing our chemistry lesson, you might have heard about this ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate recently, as it was classified last month by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Studies of its effects on aquatic organisms have been mixed. The controversy over glyphosate continues, as do the remnants of the Spartina eradication program in Willapa Bay and elsewhere.

The future of the local shellfish industry is uncertain, given the withdrawal of the imidaclopid permit, the effects of climate change, local opposition to their farming methods, and a stubborn reluctance to embrace new methods. Local groups are still stunned but happy about the latest developments, but this reporter is shocked by customers of the growers and others who say they didn’t know about the permit, the carbaryl and glyphosate spraying programs, or much of anything about the history of shellfish farming in Willapa Bay before May 2015. Which means they probably don’t know about the use of imazamox on clam beds in Willapa Bay to eradicate Japanese eelgrass (Zostera japonica), regulated by yet another 5-year NPDES permit that was approved by Ecology in 2014 (see the April 2014 issue of HIPFiSHmonthly for more).

Warnberg feels the tide is turning (pardon the pun) for the Willapa Bay ecosystem and its human inhabitants. “Please give the growers some credit, they had the foresight to see that the oyster-loving public is no longer willing to tolerate aquatic pesticide use. By relinquishing the NPDES permit they shifted course significantly, bolstering their frequent claim to be stewards of the Bay. Finally we can work together improving water quality and strengthening biodiversity in the estuary.” He added, “Times are a-changin’.” Indeed.

Note: In June, Oysterville Sea Farms (OSF) and its owner, Dan Driscoll, has a date in Pacific County court, where two of the main protagonists for spraying pesticides to rid oyster harvesting operations of pests, Dick and Brian Sheldon (featured in the Bloomberg article cited above, and the estranged uncle and cousin of Driscoll, respectively), will be testifying for the county. At stake, according to Driscoll, is the only publicly accessible restaurant on Willapa Bay, which serves oysters that Driscoll harvests, without spraying, from his beds on the bay. It should be good entertainment! Check it out: June 16 at 9 am in the South District Courtroom of the Pacific County Courthouse at 7013 Sandridge Road in Long Beach. You can read the story of OSF in the November 2013 issue of HIPFiSHmonthly, and we will carry the exciting result of the hearing in the next installment of this series on the shellfish industry on Willapa Bay.


By Bob Goldberg

Bob moved to Astoria from Seattle in 2005, on the day Katrina hit New Orleans. He started writing for HIPFiSH in 2007. With a previous career as an environmental engineer with the Washington State Department of Ecology and a researcher at various companies and national labs, Bob tries to bring his scientific (i.e. objective) background to journalism. Outside the HIPFiSH world, Bob does programming on KMUN radio, sings tenor in the North Coast Chorale, tutors at Clatsop Community College, and helps with websites. He lives in Astoria with his beautiful and wonderful wife, his son and two cats.