Keith Starvrum stands on the banks of Willapa Bay, where the low tide has revealed long lines of mudflats speckled with empty oyster shells. The sun is making a rare appearance in southwestern Washington State, but the perfect spring weather fails to cheer up the lumbering Starvrum, whose loud outbursts and biting sarcasm keep his employees’ eyes rolling. He served overseas as a special ops soldier in his youth and he has some interesting things to say about the recent uprisings in Arab countries and the CIA’s dirty habit of quietly “rearranging” governments amid apparent political turmoil. But he has a lot more to say about oysters.
Starvrum points to a lone oysterman gathering the day’s catch from neighboring mudflats and shakes his head. Starvrum used to harvest oysters from the thick mud exposed by the low tide, but he has not brought in a catch in three years. He refuses to participate in the lucrative business, a traditional mainstay of the local economy, because the pesticides sprayed on adjacent mudflats drifted onto his oyster beds.
“That’s why we don’t sell our oysters, ’cause we know what they’re in,” Starvrum says. “But when we do, they will be 100 times better.” Other oystermen have used pesticides to kill pests for generations, but Starvrum did it differently. He harvested oysters by hand, without using chemicals, and hauled them right from the bay to the kitchen of a small hotel on the same property. The rest were shipped to natural foods restaurants. Starvrum says his oyster farm was “as organic as you can be in Willapa Bay.”
The pesticides that finally drove Starvrum to cancel his oyster harvests were not sprayed by his fellow oystermen, however. State agencies sprayed the chemicals to combat a saltwater marsh grass “infestation.” Like industrial gardeners weeding a giant brackish plot, government workers came in boats and helicopters, slowly spraying thousands of gallons of herbicides into the bay’s shallow waters.
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