The Weeds of Willapa Bay

A Real Grass-Roots Conflict

Something bizarre is going on in Willapa Bay, Washington and it is all related to a noxious weed known as Spartina. This tall, dense grass grows rapidly along coastal salt-water marshes and has been rising from the mud of the Northwest since the late nineteenth century. In Washington State and elsewhere Spartina is viewed as an invasive species that can hybridize with other grasses and take over wetlands, destroying biodiversity along the way. Some think that’s what is going on in Willapa.

In 2003 Congress allocated $1 million to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eradicate Spartina from Willapa Bay. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the chief proponents of removing the grass from the area, insists Spartina has taken over the marshes of Willapa and is ruining the ecosystem. Nonetheless, several local landowners have been critical of the eradication effort and insist the methods currently being used to kill Spartina, mainly synthetic pesticides, are more damaging than the grass itself.

All parties seem to agree, however, that Willapa is one of the most ecologically important bays along the West Coast. During migration season over 100,000 shorebirds feed along the banks of the Willapa, making it one of the top 10 habitats for shorebirds between Alaska and Mexico. It is of vital importance for many species.

“Spartina is a huge and seemingly daunting problem. The only way we’ll be successful is if the community, lawmakers, and conservationists work together,” said TNC forest manager Tom Kollasch in 2003.

But The Nature Conservancy has quite a different view of Spartina along the Atlantic coast, where the plant remains a vital part of intertidal wetlands and helps to prevent erosion and provides habitat for filter-feeding animals such as oyster and mussel. In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut dozens of acres of Spartina are dying off every year and the loss of the plant is destroying many salt-water marshes. Scientists aren’t sure as to the cause, but the disappearance of the grass has many concerned.

“The loss of the productive habitat would have widespread implications,” Nicole P. Maher, a wetlands expert for TNC, told The New York Times last July. “[Spartina] provides food, it filters water and buffers storm and wave energy. It’s very valuable to wildlife. We need to do more than just keep an eye on it.”

So why then is Spartina a threat to the health of Willapa Bay? The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), which has undertaken the eradication effort on the bay, asserts that Spartina can kill native plants which provide refuge and food supplies for crabs, fish, waterfowl, and other marine life. The Western Aquatic Plant Management Society believes Spartina is a threat to the ecology of Northwest marshlands yet admits at this time that most “evidence of species displacement is anecdotal”.

Anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to convince Fritzi Cohen, who owns the popular Moby Dick Hotel and oyster farm on Willapa Bay, that her property ought to be sprayed with toxic chemicals to eradicate the plant.

“Spartina is a C4 (carbon fixating) plant and sequesters more CO2 than other kinds of vegetation,” says Cohen, who considers herself an avid environmentalist. “It stabilizes the shoreline, keeps the bay water clean and free of algae bloom.”

The WSDA believes it is in Cohen’s interest to rid the bay of the weed, as the $16 million oyster industry relies on ample, healthy habitat for productive harvests. In the first round of spraying the WSDA used Rodeo, a glyphosate based herbicide manufactured by Monsanto. The Sierra Club of Canada states of Monsanto’s plant poison, “[G]lyphosate has been linked to respiratory problems, birth defects, miscarriage, and cancer, and has also been shown to be toxic to fish and persistent in the soil.”

Now the marshes around Willapa Bay are being sprayed with imazapyr, a purportedly less poisonous substance than glyphosate. Nonetheless the EPA still believes imazapyr may be slightly toxic to fish and aquatic vertebrae.

Even so, Fritzi Cohen, owner of the Moby Dick Hotel, does not endorse The Nature Conservancy or Washington State’s rationale or method for eradicating the noxious weed. She also doesn’t think getting rid of the invasive grass will ever help her oyster farm.

“The same mentality that got us into Iraq got us into this Spartina war — propaganda and outright untruths, repeated over and over and over,” declares Cohen. “There has been 25 million wasted to eradicate Spartina. It must stop.”

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Eric Patton said on August 23rd, 2007 at 8:10am #

    This article doesn’t appear to answer the question of why Spartina is apparently being protected on one coast, yet targeted for eradication on the other.

  2. Joshua Frank said on August 23rd, 2007 at 10:25am #

    That’s a question Ms. Cohen would like to have answered. It’s a complicated issue. Mainly, the plant is native to the Atlantic coast, and not to the Pacific (there are different types of Spartina, however, the one of the West Coast that is threatening is Atlantic Cordgrass). Scientists believe it could be quite damaging along the Pacific coast if left unchecked. They are concerned that it will grow out of control and destroy habitat for migratory birds and aquatic animals. I actually agree that Spartina could be destructive, but I disagree with using pesticides to get rid of it. There are other ways to control it, mainly a certain type of grasshopper, which were actually introduced there a few years ago and seemed to be working quite well. Again, it’s a complicated controversy.

  3. syvanen said on August 23rd, 2007 at 3:58pm #

    Years back I worked as a field and laboratory biologist that was involved in studying Willapa Bay waters and factors influencing oyster productivity. What I found strange about the story is that in those days the ecosystem studies were conducted by the state Department of Fisheries not the Ag dept. There were people in fisheries that had respectable environmental credentials. A group of them helped make the scientific case that discharges from paper mills were poisoning the oyster beds and worked closely with the plaintiffs in the suits that eventually forced reforms. But why now has the Dept of Ag assumed the responsibility for ecosystem management? These guys had a terrible reputation as guardians of natural systems.

    One small correction. Of all of the bad things one can say about glyphophate, persistence is not one. This is a relatively unstable compound that will be quickly recycled in any water or soil environment.

  4. Captain Puget said on August 23rd, 2007 at 5:41pm #

    May I recommend that readers look at the Washington State Dept. of Ecology’s page on spartina for some basic information about this non-native, invasive, noxious plant:
    http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/coast/plants/spartina.html

  5. Hal Hughes said on August 23rd, 2007 at 10:08pm #

    There’s a lot missing from this article. First of all, there’s more than one kind of Spartina. The one that’s considered invasive on the Pacific Coast is Atlantic cordgrass, which grows in very different ways than native Pacific cordgrasses. The natives of either coast fit neatly into their biomes – as do all native species. Native Pacific cordgrasses grow in patterns that leave channels for native fish, birds, and other animals. Atlantic cordgrass chokes those channels, outcompetes natives, and throws the ecosystems out of whack. It was introduced to the West Coast by humans before they understood any of this.

    The California Coastal Conservancy has been running an invasive Spartina eradication program for years, mostly in San Francisco Bay (see http://www.spartina.org/), and we’ve been covering it in California Coast & Ocean magazine all along. (See http://www.coastalconservancy.ca.gov/coast&ocean/summer2003/pages/one.htm and http://www.coastalconservancy.ca.gov/coast&ocean/summer2000/pages/pthr.htm, among many articles. The latter tells the history of Atlantic Spartina in California.). As you’ll see in my 2003 story, it’s far from the only invasive plant that’s threatening Pacific wetlands. Claiming that because Atlantic Spartina is a good thing on the East Coast means it’s good on the West Coast is the kind of thinking that started all the trouble.

    Most invasive species are introduced and spread by humans, more often than not because they like them for one reason or another. Some of the most destructive are fanatically defended by their admirers. To yield to their position means that native ecosystems and biodiversity have no value, that the planet will be shaped by humans whether we like it or not. I can understand that – I have my very own self-destructive streak, as do we all – but I’m in favor of doing what we can to preserve what’s left of natural systems and the plants and animals that inhabit them. To do otherwise is to accept that it’s okay to go ahead and destroy the planet and ourselves with it. Ecological millennarianism is no fun.

    Hal Hughes
    Senior Associate Editor
    California Coast & Ocean

  6. Michael Bridges said on August 24th, 2007 at 8:30am #

    Ah, the seedy world of exotic pest plant councils and their corporate pimps.

    I’ve spent an unnatural amount of time thinking about these efforts to put plants back in their proper places. There are several issues that coincide. I think that the prime movers of these efforts are well-meaning but xenophobic individuals (ecologists) steered by greedy capitalists (Monsanto, BASF, et. al.).

    The problem, it seems to me, is that we’re using pesticides to try to cure the problem.

    If we step back and consider the situation, I think you’ll agree that we’re being ridiculously short-sighted. We’re taking imazapyr and spraying it over 25,000 acres of wetlands in Washington state every year for the past 4 years, without any consideration of the herbicide’s persistence in the soil. Here is a chemical (imazapyr) that has an uncertain half-life in the soil, that is detectable for an unknown number of years, that moves slowly and steadily down through the soil strata, and that will end up in groundwater, much like atrazine. Add to that the fact that imazapyr is a nonselective herbicide, slowly starving any plant that it contacts of life through its enzyme-inhibiting action. Now, what about all those native plants that are incidentally wiped out during treatment? Well, since these are mud flats, and mud flats should consist of only mud, then everything’s fine. Except, of course, that everything’s not fine – we’ve poisoned the very ecosystem that we want to preserve with toxic, persistent chemicals. The oysters, the salmon, the people – all poisoned so that we might have our pristine-looking, manicured wetlands.

  7. M. Chattick Sr. said on August 24th, 2007 at 2:42pm #

    M. Bridges and syvanen are both hitting nail on head;
    One point that does need close scrutiny is indeed why Dept of AG. which has taken over almost all of the fishery , estuarary or anything that would show industry having an adverse effect upon natual habitat, Second being the effects upon native species of not just fish but animals and forest that border Willipa BAy.
    Willipa Bay is to this day is very lightly settled area with only a few low population density citys on its shores, although it has several watersheds they are all short, mostly under fifteen miles in length, they do drain a large acerage that through the years has been logged over more than once and continues to this day to send many tons of silt into its waterways.
    While oysters and crabbing are the two main food items fish such as migrating salmon, sturgeon and many lesser edible species do exist that along with its bird and wildlife viewing brings in a very large portion fo cash to the areas.
    It is not so much the controversy of how to get rid of our invasive species spartina but in how the money is spent that should be looked into.
    Most of the money is going inot study and chemicals recommended by the study groups and the info is dominated by the imput of Nature Conservancy.
    Nature Conservancy is fast becoming the largest landholder of all the lands bordering all waterways into the bay.
    Nature Conservancy is not just a Sierra Club organization by another name and some of the uses and practices such as tax status and still logging for profit some of its holdings and timber land swaps with other taxpayer owned propertys that are supposed to be administered for the taxpayers including schools.
    the amounts of property being deducted from taxable propertys is large in such a rural area.
    Connections with chemical and timber companys by individuals who Administer this TAx exempt Foundation are easily shown.
    The peoples in the rural areas do not always unederstand just how the Conservancy group manages its holdings and in many cases limits access to only certain uses such as other foundations facilitys upon their holdings once owned.
    If the operations of Conservacy group were better understood by public maybe it would have a greater impact upon what locals would stand for in ridding our waterways by means other than chemical.

  8. M. Chattick Sr. said on August 24th, 2007 at 2:57pm #

    While not a solution of much permanence the amounts of biomass that would be harvested woud go a long ways in the task of limiting its spread until a true study of non- partisan people or at the very least a task force of knowlegeable groups could do a finality study.
    The bio mass does now have a fairly close local market just upriver on Columbia and in an area where poverty and subsitance wages from oyster farms and local tourist workers wages is the norm a much needed economic boost, if even on a temporary basis, would indeed help.

  9. Nwtao said on September 10th, 2007 at 3:09pm #

    Joshua Frank wrote, “There are other ways to control it, mainly a certain type of grasshopper, which were actually introduced there a few years ago and seemed to be working quite well. ”

    I think you’ve unwittingly illustrated one of the inherent problems with how humankind seeks to “remedy” problems WE create in the first place. You’re supporting the idea that a non-native species of grasshopper has been introduced to help eradicate a non-native plant.

    Let’s say that this gambit worked to perfection — the grasshoppers eventually rid the Willapa Basin of the invasive spartina. Now, we will have to figure out how to rid said basin of the grasshoppers which, I’m sure, will equally impact the insect biodiversity of the region.

    Maybe we can introduce a non-native bird to eat the non-native grasshopper who ate the non-native plant. This kind of solution invariably creates a non-ending problem. The target simply shifts.

  10. Keith said on January 5th, 2008 at 2:36pm #

    I am the oysterman for the moby dick and have tide flats of my own.
    I would like to point out that we grow our oysters in the spartina with great results and we rely on the natuaral catch for our oysters.
    The chems that they are using in the bay are toxic to all natural spat ,salmon and ducks .We have the info on this and we also have spent thousands on our own lab tests with the results that come back we in good
    faith can not sell our oysters. Yet all other companies in the bay do sell theres and there oysters are worse because ours are caontaminated from drift and all the other companies spray there land directly.recently taylor shell fish was dropped as a heritage food supplier because of there pesticide practices and there will be more the lies that led to the posioning of our bay will be answered for

  11. loanzo said on September 2nd, 2008 at 2:07pm #

    wow :-)
    its very unconventional point of view.
    Nice post.
    realy gj

    thank you ;)