GRAYS HARBOR, WASH. — An oyster shack tops the list of offerings in the local farm fresh guide here. No visit would be complete without exploring the shellfish industry. The region, together with Willapa Bay, produces 25 percent of all oysters in the country. But currently, growers are facing a big challenge.
Since the industry started more than a century ago, it has generated hundreds of good rural jobs — resulting from the region's status as the top oyster-growing area in the United States.
“It’s actually farming, like traditional farming,” said Kathleen Nisbet Moncy, of Nisbet Oyster Company. She invited me to tour her processing facility on Willapa Bay at the mouth of the Niawiakum River, where shucked oysters emerge from conveyer belts carrying containers labeled with their Goose Point brand.
She’s standing outside the plant, near a boat piled high with a dredge load of oysters, pulled fresh from the tides about an hour earlier.
“So, we plant our oyster seed, we cultivate our oyster seed," Moncy said. "And then at three years, we actually go out and harvest it.”
The seed they use is the same kind used by 98 percent of the industry in Washington. They plant non-native, fast-growing Pacific oysters that were first imported from Japan in 1919. Those were brought in after a combination of overfishing and habitat degradation wiped out native Olympia oysters.
Pacific oysters are now big money-makers. Moncy’s family-run company is a good example. She says her father, David Nisbet, started it in 1975 with just 10 acres of tidelands, a small boat and a couple of his cousins.
Now, they have about 100 employees. The company holds about 2,000 acres of tidelands (of which they work about 600 per year) and they ship their oysters all over the country, as well as overseas to Hong Kong and China. Moncy wants her children to be able to follow her into this business.
But there’s a big problem: burrowing shrimp are increasing in number, taking over tidelands and turning oyster beds into muddy quicksand that suffocates the shellfish.
From 1963 to 2013, growers used a neurotoxin called carbaryl to control the shrimp, which are native to the area. But after a lawsuit, the growers agreed in 2003 to phase carbaryl out over a 10-year period and look for an alternative. Without a chemical pesticide, the shrimp have been coming back.
“The burrowing shrimp infestation has increased significantly over the last three years, to the point where we’re losing large amounts of tidelands to the shrimp,” Moncy said. “We’re worried that with the continued destruction that’s happening out into the estuary, we won’t only lose more and more tidelands, but we’re also going to lose more and more habitat in the ecosystem in general.”
She says the ecosystem as a whole is out of balance, because of the amount of burrowing shrimp present.
“We’re the ones that have seen it and we’re the ones that have been managing it. But at this point it time, it’s becoming more of an issue than oyster farmers can continue to bear the burden of. And we really need help to bring the ecosystem back into a balance again.”
Her company is one of about a dozen oyster growers that want to use a newer pesticide to control the shrimp, called imidacloprid.
It’s widely used in agriculture and in a class known as neonicotinoids, which have been linked to bee colony collapse, making it increasingly controversial. It was recently banned in the European Union. And it had never before been approved for use in the water, until the state Department of Ecology approved its conditional use in 2015, granting a permit to the Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association.
But, after a big public outcry, the growers withdrew that application. Eventually, a smaller group came back with a request to use imidacloprid on fewer acres and apply it only from the ground, to limit drift that often happens with aerial spraying.
The Department of Ecology denied the latest permit, in April 2018. It said new science showed there were too many risks, and the impacts of imidacloprid on invertebrates in the tidelands would violate both the state’s local sediment management standards and the federal Clean Water Act.
The oyster growers who filed for the permit are appealing that decision. Kathleen Moncy says that after more than a decade of searching for some kind of alternative to control the shrimp and millions of dollars in research spending, imidacloprid is the only option they have. She is convinced using it would be safe.
“There is no way I would ever do anything that would harm the ecosystem that fuels my family, that fuels my community, that fuels all of my employees. I would do nothing that would put that at a detriment and that is not what we’re doing,” she said.
And Moncy says without treatment, she thinks the burrowing shrimp infestations will put them out of business in the next five to seven years.
The Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board has set an appeal hearing for up to two full weeks of testimony, Sept. 9–20 next year. They’ll hear from the oyster growers who want to use the pesticide, as well as from the state Department of Ecology, defending its decision.
Among those paying close attention will be local oyster growers who want to keep pesticides out of the tidelands. A new book details the history of pesticide use in Washington's oyster industry. Larry Warnberg spent 25 years in Nahcotta, working the tidelands without pesticides. He co-founded a group called the Ad Hoc Coalition for Willapa Bay, which was behind the original fight against carbaryl and is now fighting against the application for use of imidacloprid.
Warnberg learned to co-exist with the native shrimp. He wants others to do the same. He says if growers kill all of the shrimp, that’s what causes the population explosions that lead to infestations and suffocate oysters.
“If you don’t spray, as I didn’t for 25 years, you get a stable population of a few adult shrimp. And they’re carnivorous. They eat (the) juveniles that come in, because they don’t want to share their territory,” he said. So, the tidelands stay firm enough for oyster growing.
Warnberg speaks as a practitioner and says, based on his experience, the ecosystem will recover and rebalance over time, if growers stay away from the pesticides. He’s worried about other invertebrates that they kill – everything from Dungeness crabs to clams and eelworms. And he is concerned about the broader, long-term effects of targeting the native shrimp.
“They’re considered a foundation species, or a keystone species. Much like trees in a forest, they create habitat for other wildlife,” he said. “So it doesn’t make sense to me to spray them.”
But the growers behind the appeal say they believe imidacloprid can be used with a light touch to rebalance the ecosystem and preserve thousands of jobs that they fear will otherwise disappear as the oyster beds devolve into quicksand.