Saving Private Oysters

In 1895, lawmakers in Olympia reaffirmed a unique provision of state law, enacted by the Territorial Legislature, known as the Bush and Callow Land Acts, that allowed private parties to lease coastal tidelands for commercial purposes. Bush-Callow upheld the validity and value of private investment, even on public land, in cultivating and propagating clams and other shellfish. The argument was that shellfish farming should benefit from the same status as “other agricultural activities, programs, and development within the state.”

Thus was born Washington’s oyster industry. (In Oregon, on the other hand, all tidelands are considered public, with no commercial use allowed.) Bush-Callow and various follow-up legislation ensured that shellfish cultivation and aquaculture became protected activities, not unlike apple orchards, wheat fields, or cattle ranches.

In the intervening years, one company in particular grew and grew, not just because of land it owned, but other tidelands that it leased: Taylor Shellfish. With 650 employees, annual sales of $75 million, and operations around the world, it is the biggest American provider of shellfish, farming 10,000 acres of Puget Sound tidelands for oysters, mussels, clams, and geoduck. It sells oysters and clams to restaurants across the country, for over a decade it sponsored the West Coast Oyster Wine Competition, and currently operates three retail outlets in Seattle (Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Pioneer Square).

So when the company announced four years ago that it would spray its Willapa Bay oyster beds with a pesticide called imidacloprid to control an infestation of burrowing shrimp in the intertidal sands, it had the blessing of the Department of Ecology (which had banned the previous treatment, with carbaryl). But it did not reckon with the public outrage.

Imidacloprid is widely used in land-based agriculture, but not in aquaculture. It’s a neurotoxin that warns right on the label that it shouldn’t be applied directly to water. The Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration have also warned about unintended consequences.

Bill Taylor, fifth generation to head the company, argued that the state’s scientists as well as the Environmental Protection Agency were behind his company’s efforts, which he claimed were necessary to save Willapa Bay’s shellfish beds. But the protests were too loud. After several days of social media outrage, Taylor backed down. “We have chosen to respect the concerns of our customers,” he said.

But “this decision weighs heavily on us knowing it will affect other growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor,” Taylor said in a statement released at the time. “Many multi-generational family businesses may not survive.”

Now, other shellfish growers (not Taylor) are back with plans to spray the beds to control a pest called the burrowing shrimp. What the burrowing shrimp does is destabilize the structure of the tidelands; the wet sand no longer “stands up” but sinks, suffocating oysters and crabs who live there.

Danny Westneat at The Seattle Times has an excellent description of the results. (Warning: you may have to find a way around the pay wall if you’re not a subscriber.) The state legislature, in its usual state of chaos, has actually directed the state’s Department of Ecology to approve the latest application despite almost 1,000 pages of data that warn of dire consequences.

Bill Dewey, Taylor Shellfis’s director of legislative affairs clarified the situation: “To be clear Taylor Shellfish is not back before the legislature with this request.  We are not part of the group of growers in Willapa pursuing the use of imidacloprid.  We made a commitment to our customers that we will not use imidacloprid.  Since we have no intention of using imidacloprid, we are not taking a position on the bills before the legislature.”

So who’s doing what here? The culprit is a Democratic legislator from Longview, Sen. Dean Takko, who believes that banning imidacoprid will hurt his constituents. He blames “agenda-driven environmentalists and misinformed Seattle chefs.”

To be continued.