Something bizarre is going on in Willapa Bay, Washington,
and it is all related to a 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 herbicides, 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 C02 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
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 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 the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be
published by AK Press in July 2008.