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Willapa Bay Oyster Farmers Ask State Again For Permission To Use Neurotoxin

AP Photo
Elaine Thompson
A bed of oysters at low tide in Willapa Bay near Tokeland, Wash.


Oyster farmers in Willapa Bay are asking the Washington State Department of Ecology for permission, again, to use a neurotoxic chemical to get rid of native shrimp. Large numbers of the burrowing shrimp are turning the tide flats into quicksand, making the land unusable for growing oysters.



The chemical, imidacloprid, would paralyze the shrimp. They would suffocate and die.


“If we are not allowed to use this tool, it is do or die for us. We will be forced to not even sell our farms because they will lose value. We will be forced to abandon our farms,” said oyster farmer Annie Brown.


Imidacloprid is a popular pesticide used on everything from apple crops to flea collars for dogs. But it’s never been used in water or on tide flats.


Last year, the Washington’s State Department of Ecology approved an environmental impact statementthat argued how and why the chemical would be safe in Willapa Bay. But the permit was withdrawn by the agency last May after a wave of criticism.


Now, oyster farmers are approaching the agency again. Farmers want to use imidacloprid to replace another chemical that’s been phased out. Farmer, Kathleen Monsey, said she and the other farmers would never do anything to hurt the bay.


“It’s stunning to us and taken us aback that somebody would think that we don’t have water quality as the very first thought on our minds. Considering it’s where we get out livelihoods from, it’s everything to us."


Rich Doenges with the Washington State Department of Ecology approved the permit that was issued last year and then canceled. He said of this new request, “You can’t carbon copy the new permit and change the date.”


Using imidacloprid on tide flats to control burrowing shrimp — that specific use — had to first be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington’s Department of Agriculture.  These approvals are called “registrations.”


Washington shellfish farmers got these two agencies to agree to this use. But two things have happened over the past few months that might make getting these requests granted a second time more difficult.


The state Department of Agriculture’s registration expired last month. Farmers will now have to get the Department of Agriculture to renew that registration.   


The other change is that the E.P.A. is taking a closer look at imidacloprid. “They are going to do an ecological risk assessment of  imidacloprid and its effect on aquatic and other life. That review is due out December 2016,” said Doenges.


This past week, the E.P.A. released a study that shows detrimental effects to honey bees who consume nectar from citrus and cotton flowers tainted with imidacloprid. The European Union banned its use on flowering plants in 2013.


Oyster farmers say if they are allowed to use imidacloprid, it would be sprayed onto tide flats once a year.


Oyster farming began in Willapa Bay in the mid 1800s. Most of the oysters harvested there today are native to Japan. Willapa shellfish growers say they produce 25% of the oysters consumed in the United States.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.