The Weeds of Willapa Bay

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 the co-editor of, and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008. He can be reached through his website,


JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.