April 29, 2015

Oysters and Pesticides: The Washington State Department of Ecology Stumbles

Change.org online petition to stop the pesticide spraying is here.  Also some WA State Ecology contact information.

This week Bloomberg News published a sobering story describing the use of pesticides in Northwest waters by the oyster industry.  Included in this story is the approval by the Washington State Department of Ecology of the insecticide imidacloprid, a potent neurotoxin, for spraying over Willapa Bay and Greys Harbor.  This toxin is known to kill bees and, according to the manufacturer should NOT be use in water:
“This product is highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water, or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high water mark.”
Today, Danny Westneat published a similar story in the Seattle Times.  

It is not like the environmental negligence of the powerful Washington State oyster industry was a mystery, with community groups such as ProtectOurShorelines describing the chemical stew and plastics spread over our public waterways by this industry.   Last year, I blogged about this issue when taking on some of the factual errors in the Seattle Times stories about ocean acidification.

This issue represents a major failure by the state agency responsible to protect Washington's environment (Washington State Department of Ecology).   It is an example of a wealthy industry getting its way, of cozy relationships with politicians, of incomplete information being provided to the State's citizens.

The Coalition to Save Puget Sound document to environmental predations of some in the local shellfish industry (link here)
There is a long history of oyster aquaculture here in the Northwest.   Native oysters (the Olympia oyster) were originally abundant until harvested to near extinction.   To replace it, local oystermen brought in the larger Pacific oyster from Japan, a species unable to spawn naturally in our local waters.  But a problem developed in the 1950s after fresh water flushing from Columbia River was reduced by dam construction and timber harvesting had degraded the quality of our coastal bays: native burrowing shrimp flourished in coastal bays.  Unfortunately, the burrowing churned up the tideflats and disrupted oyster growth.  And overfishing removed many of the predators for the little shrimp.

So the oystermen decided to use a powerful insecticide, Carbaryl, a neurotoxin and carcinogen.  It is highly toxic to human and animals. Amazingly, the State Department of Ecology allowed this.    

But there was another problem for the oystermen: extensive eelgrass, which was undermining the productivity of oyster beds.   The solution:  spraying an herbicide Imazamox over the coastal wetlands.  And AGAIN the Department of Ecology approved spraying a problematic chemical over our natural marine environment.

A number of environmentally concerned folks were worried about the Carbaryl use, and after substantial pressure, the oyster industry turned to another insecticide, one never used on water before in the U.S., imidacloprid, a chemical used in several home and agriculture pesticides.   Imidacloprid is considered dangerous to bees and is banned in Europe.  And guess what?  The Department of Ecology has given permission for its use in our coastal bays starting next month.
 This chemical is highly soluble in water and will spread in the water to fish and other wildlife.

Are you getting the idea that the Washington State Department of Ecology is more interested in protecting the bottom line of the oyster industry than protecting the health of Washington citizens and our natural environment?   You would not be alone.

And the bottom line of the oyster folks is doing very well, thank you.  Here are some interesting statistics from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife of the number of pounds of unshelled oysters produced in Washington each year and the price per pound.  The harvest was level and the price QUADRUPLED (the reason is mainly because of loss of production in other parts of the world).   Someone is making a LOT of money.

Graphic courtesy of Todd Myers, WPC

So the oyster industry is making out like bandits, while the Seattle Times is writing stories about a crisis in oyster production due to ocean acidification.  As I described in detail in several of my previous blogs, the only oyster deaths were in factory oyster seed farms when they mistakenly took in cold, upwelled water during the summer.  Once they understood their mistake (with the help of the University of Washington and NOAA PMEL), the production of oyster larvae was stable and the industry is doing well.  Want proof?  Here is the price for oyster larvae the last few years:  rock solid.

There is no more prevalent untruth going around in the media and among some politicians than the claim that rising CO2 has been undermining oyster harvests during the past few years.  This statement is simply false.  And I have confirmed this with expert colleagues at the UW and NOAA PMEL

A question you might ask is why the Washington State Department of Ecology is allowing our precious waters to be turned into chemical dumping grounds for the sake of private sector interests?   One can start with jobs and money, with the Washington oyster industry bringing in nearly two-hundred million dollars a year and providing several thousand jobs.

But there is something else.  The supposed oyster/coastal acidification link is being used by some state politicians to support a political agenda dealing with greenhouse warming and rising CO2.  Several state politicians claim in speech and speech that the oyster issue is the  "canary in the coal mine" for CO2 and global warming.  Such politicians are often involved in photo-ops with oyster industry folks and clearly are not enthusiastic about restraining the activities of the local shellfish industry.  Global warming is a very serious issue for our region... it is counterproductive to hype the oyster connection to convince folks to reduce their carbon footprint.

 The oyster folks admit in private that rising CO2 is not currently an issue for them, but the claim in very useful in making them look environmentally progressive and attractive to those with a political agenda.   It also gives customers an inaccurate impression that oysters are rare and threatened, encouraging prices to rise.

Want to complain to the Department of Ecology before the new insecticide is sprayed along our coastal waters?   Contact your local state representative or call/email the head of the Department of Ecology Maia Bellon.  Email the Governor.

And you might think twice about ordering oysters in a restaurant or from your local market.

Finally, I should note there are other major environmental issues regarding the local shellfish industry.  For example, there is the massive use of PVC pipe and other plastics for geoduck production (see picture). Every acre of geoduck aquaculture includes approximately 8 miles of PVC tubes plus 40,000 plastic net caps, plastic bands and/or 30 x 30 ft. plastic canopy nets.

We are talking about a serious source of plastic pollution (more info here).


  1. Why isn't this actionable under the Clean Waters Act?

  2. I am glad this has come to light, but I am not surprised anymore when goverment kowtows to industry demands. We no longer live in a republic, let alone a democracy, and nothing is more important than the money that goes to politicians. We are an utterly corrupt nation, one of the worst in the world.

    I suspect some politicians will act all surprised about this poisoning, and swear to make it all right -- now that it has come out in the press. But the corruption won't miss a step. I blame Americans for accepting it.

  3. Oysters are gross and I never eat them, but I am really disappointed to learn about this. I like to think of our state as environmentally aware and progressive; the only state with more battery-electric cars per capita is California, for example. This is gross and I will be contacting my state congresscritters.

  4. Sadly I'm not surprised. I know 3 people that have left the EPA over the past 5 years because it has become a politically driven agency. Science takes a back seat to money!

  5. For anybody that wants to dig into the environmental fate of this compound this 2006 memo by Calif. Dept. of Pesticide Regulation is good start. With an aqueous photolysis half life of less than 3 hours it looks like the toxicity of its degradation products are the thing to concentrate on.


  6. An injunction to halt the permit until peer reveiw of the EIS is warranted

  7. The Washington Department of Ecology has a presence on Twitter!
    Let Ms. Bellon know that she needs to walk her talk about keeping our state Evergreen!

  8. The Washington Department of Ecology has a presence on Twitter!
    Let Ms. Bellon know that she needs to walk her talk about keeping our state Evergreen!

  9. Oyster growers use large metal spikes to hold down the nets over the oysters, these spikes are a serious danger to marine mammals. I saw two wales in two different years in Shelton cruzing the beach, probably rubbing their bellies in the sand near the oyster beds. The next day or so the same outcome "Dead whale found." Both whales died of multiple puncture wounds.
    And, what about the starfish problem? This proposal to spray is just nuts, fore go our ecosystem to support a few oyster farmers? What a stupid idea!

  10. Thanks cliff for this great post and don - wow, how shocking. I didn't know about the metal spikes. That is horrible. Thank you so much for that info. I agree with the sentiment of david. It reminds me of the piece john oliver did on the clothing industry and cheap clothes. Corporations like the gap constantly feigning surprise at the horrible human and labor rights violations while continually commuting the same violations over and over again. Corruption is rampant, money controls this country and the horrible atrocities are shrugged off as necessary evils to keep the wheel of industry turning. This attitude needs to stop.

  11. Dear Cliff Mass:
    As a small oyster and clam farmer in Jefferson County I commend you for this blog. There are some excellent points made about ecology as well as the hype about ocean acidification and industry/political relationships; however, there are some errors in your blog that you may wish to consider:
    1. C. gigas (pacific oyster) can and does reproduce in our local waters of Hood Canal.
    2. Not all shellfish farmers are getting rich. Many small farms work hard to support their families and actually protect the marine environment - they have to if they hope to have a productive farm (job) in the future.
    3. Rather than turn against the entire industry, how about promoting knowing where your food comes from and how it is grown - whether large agribusiness or aquaculture, their business models differ significantly from the small family farms that are doing so much to protect the environment as well as maintain a healthy lifestyle for their families and communities. We are fortunate in Jefferson County to have these small farms.
    The primary issue surrounding the controversy in this industry centers around management and responsible stewardship of a precious resource. Disinformation has been spread regarding many aspects of this industry - it is up to us as citizens and consumers to be informed and act accordingly - hold government (employees not taxpayers) and business accountable for their decisions as they affect us all.
    Thank you again for your contribution.

  12. Dr. Mass, I'm at a loss to understand why you're focusing only on the oyster industry as the agent of estuarine destruction. The majority of our west-side coastal agricultural land is former estuary, now diked, leveed, drained, and constantly sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. At least the oyster farmers are still growing estuarine organisms in the estuary. Are they any less to blame than a Mt. Vernon tulip farmer? The conversion of those estuaries to grow tulip, potatoes, blueberries, or whatever resulted in the 100% and absolute destruction of valuable coastal habitat. Note also that none of those crops are native to either Washington or to tidal flats. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that all of that flat land in our coastal cities that we now work, play and live on is also former coastal estuary.

  13. The eelgrass is actually an invasive species. It is not native to Willapa Bay and has significantly altered and degraded the Bay compared to its natural state. It affects much more than just the oyster industry.

    Eelgrass eradication fit neatly into a rhetoric of the oyster industry being greedy and self-serving, but it's not that simple.

    1. Definitely not that simple. Several different kinds of grass are in the bay, some native, some not, but control of it via chemicals was and is the wrong route, just as it was and is for the shrimp.

  14. This is just disgusting. And eelgrass is considered a precious ecosystem nursery. Yachtsman are admonished not to anchor in it to avoid pulling up a few plants, while the state is abrogating its responsibility to protect it from pesticides.

    Tell the oyster guys to use their own seaside tanks.

  15. Very informative article on an important issue. Thanks for cutting through it all for us. Here's an interesting response from @ecologywa: http://ecologywa.blogspot.com/2015/05/new-oyster-permit-substantially-reduces.html

  16. Another reason to not eat oysters.

  17. Doesn't it seem like a total lack of imagination to be going to so much trouble to kill off a native protein source without first exploring all the options for maybe finding a viable market for it? The shrimp seem to be thriving down there, and they are native. Why not find a market for them (even as a substitute for the forage fish currently being taken from our oceans to support fish farms) and have another industry and more jobs for this State?

  18. Plants and animals move as physical and chemical parameters change. Most species have been invasive at some place and time. Being invasive, alone, is not necessarily a bad thing. Japanese eelgrass provides ecological benefits in the upper intertidal zone. I am not aware that it is, ecologically, anything but beneficial to species other than shellfood.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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