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Seattle Chefs Distressed About New State Plan to Spray Oyster Beds with Pesticide

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Beds in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor could see neurotoxin by May 17.

A new Washington state plan to spray neurotoxin into oyster beds has some Seattle chefs, understandably, deeply concerned. Starting as soon as May 17, the state has decided to use crop-dusting helicopters to spray a neurotoxic pesticide into the oyster beds of Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, despite the bottle's warning: "Do not apply directly to water."

Per The Seattle Times on Tuesday, April 28: "The backstory here is there's a tiny burrowing shrimp that can loosen the intertidal soil so much it turns it into a black mayonnaise-like goo. Oysters sink and suffocate. So the oyster industry for years killed these native shrimp using a pesticide called carbaryl. But the use of that one got restricted. In its place, oyster growers have proposed spraying imidacloprid, a neurotoxin used in everything from flea poison to termite spray to farm insecticides."

One of the most common pesticides in the world, imidacloprid was designed to be used on land. Rich Doenges, the water-quality manager for the state Department of Ecology who signed off on the permit, says he understands people's concern, "But we don't do this lightly. We are very confident we have a series of safeguards in this permit that strongly protect the environment," Doenges told The Times.

Still sounds pretty scary, and this morning The Times followed up with another article reporting the reactions of several local chefs. Taylor Shellfish is the largest farmed-shellfish operation in the country, and owner Bill Taylor worked with the Washington Department of Ecology to get approval for the pesticide use. He says they have done extensive testing, and he believes it is environmentally safe.

"The shrimp are telling us something: Don't grow oysters out here right now. They know what they're doing much more than we do, the shrimp and the oysters," Matt Dillon said.

Nonetheless, Renee Erickson (The Walrus & the Carpenter, The Whale Wins) told The Times she was "horrified" by the new plan and immediately reached out to her suppliers to see if it would affect her restaurants. Ultimately it will not—she doesn't sell Willapa or Grays oysters—but others do. Twenty-five percent of all oysters in the nation come from Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

Matt Dillon (Sitka & Spruce, Corson Building, The London Plane, Bar Sajor) who, like Erickson, sources oysters from small producers, told The Times, "‘It seems really strange and sad. We'll just really try to be smart about it and ask what's going on, then find out what we can do to help or educate people.'"

Dillon has some personal experience because he farms a very small amount of oysters on Vashon Island. Concerning the current status of Willapa Bay, he commented, "The shrimp are telling us something: Don't grow oysters out here right now. They know what they're doing much more than we do, the shrimp and the oysters."

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