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Bowing to backlash, Taylor Shellfish decides against using pesticide

The decision to stop spraying "weighs heavily on us," said Bill Taylor, "knowing it will affect other growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor." Credit: Ronald Holden

In 1895, lawmakers in Olympia reaffirmed a unique provision of state law that had been enacted by the Territorial Legislature. Known as the Bush and Callow Land Acts, it 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 enjoy 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.

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

So when the company announced this week 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 Taylor did not reckon on the public outrage its decision would unleash.

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

Bill Taylor, the fifth generation Taylor to head the company, argued that the state’s scientists, along with the Environmental Protection Agency supported his company’s efforts, which he claimed were necessary in order to save Willapa Bay’s shellfish beds. But the public protests were too loud. After several days of social media outrage, Taylor decided to abandon the spraying idea. “We have chosen to respect the concerns of our customers,” he said.

Still, the decision was not an easy one. It “weighs heavily on us knowing it will affect other growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor,” Taylor said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “Without an effective control for burrowing shrimp, many multi-generational family businesses may not survive.”

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