Pulling spray permit was right move

Over the past weekend, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor commercial oyster growers and the state Department of Ecology agreed to scrap a permit to allow the growers to spray thousands of acres of oyster-growing ground in the marine estuaries with neurotoxic pesticide to control burrowing mud shrimp.

The sudden about-face happened because the oyster industry offended the public, environmental groups and, most importantly, the customers they depend upon to buy the oysters they raise. The backlash from Seattle-area restaurateurs who said they would have nothing to do with oysters harvested from areas sprayed with pesticides played a major role as well.

It’s not often that an industry turns back a permit after spending five years and $1 million on research — in this case to convince Ecology that the pesticide imidacloprid could be used safely in marine waters. And it’s just as rare for Ecology to bow to public pressure and rescind a permit it issued after concluding the project posed no significant threat to the environment.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from people across Washington that this permit didn’t meet their expectations, and we respect the growers’ response,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a hastily prepared news release Sunday.

If the permit had not been rescinded, Washington would have been the first state to allow use of imidacloprid in an aquatic setting. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had both expressed concerns about unknown impacts from its use.

Even as they walked away from the permit, the oyster growers insisted the use of imidacloprid could have been done safely, without harm to the environment. It was viewed by some as a less toxic alternative to the pesticide carbaryl, which has been used for the same purpose in the two bays for years. These two estuaries account for 25 percent of the commercial oysters grown in the United States.

But isn’t there a genuine disconnect between the word “oyster” and the word “pesticide”? The seafood industry, including Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish, is on the forefront of the fight for pollution-free marine waters and carbon emission reduction strategies to combat ocean acidification. Commercial shellfish growers provide a valuable link between the business and environmental communities on several key issues. These alliances, combined with consumer confidence in their products, remain paramount for the growers.

The oyster growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor have tried a wide range of non-toxic shrimp-control measures, including covering the tide flats with gravel and shells, infusing the tide flats with habanero pepper extract and garlic oil, and shocking the shrimp with electricity. So far, nothing has worked.

It’s back to the drawing board for the oyster growers, who are desperate to find a way to keep mud shrimp from suffocating the oysters. A non-toxic alternative must be found, given the consumer’s demand for pesticide-free growing ground.