Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – A Board of Supervisors gesture of support for the Coast Seafoods oyster company has opened a public discussion on the company’s value to the community.
At their July 25 meeting, county supervisors approved a letter of support for an extension of Coast Seafoods’ existing Humboldt Bay oyster farming permit. Sponsored by Supervisor Mike Wilson, the letter describes the shellfish industry as a positive contributor to the local economy and the bay’s ecology.
But that view is in dispute with Coast Seafoods’ bid to expand its oyster farming footprint by 265 acres, an approximate doubling of its current area. The state’s Coastal Commission denied the expansion last June due to concerns over impacts to eel grass.
The commission will consider extending the company’s existing permit at its Aug. 10 meeting. The extension isn’t controversial in and of itself, but the expansion proposal continues to influence criticism of the company.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell pulled the letter from the meeting’s consent agenda and said she’d received many calls and emails expressing concern.
A public comment session opened the floor for contrasting views of the company.
“I don’t think any letter the Board of Supervisor chooses to send should say that it’s supported by a majority of the residents, in fact there are polls to the contrary,” said Eureka resident Stephen Rosenberg, who has actively opposed Coasts’ expansion. “Nobody wants to see Coast (Seafoods) go out of business, on the other hand, nobody wants to see them have so much acreage that they are in a monopolistic position or expand into areas of eel grass.”
But representatives of numerous groups and agencies said there is strong support for the company. Members of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, the Humboldt Office of Education, the county’s Farm Bureau and Eureka and Fortuna high schools told supervisors that Coast Seafoods is a benefit to the community.
Responding to claims that Coast Seafoods’ goals conflict with expansion of small-scale oyster farming, Grace Sterner, co-owner of North Bay Shellfish, told supervisors that Coast Seafoods helps all the bay’s oyster farmers by providing otherwise unaffordable services like water quality monitoring.
“We couldn’t do that, we couldn’t hire an attorney, we couldn’t do an EIR, that would put us out of business,” she said. “We support not only Coast’s existing operation but its expansion.”
Greg Dale, Coast’s operations manager, bluntly commented on the challenges of permitting.
“I personally hate the permitting process, it’s not because I dislike regulations or the permit – the process is murder,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable and I don’t like to go through this introspection.”
But he added that “this industry, in Humboldt Bay, is by far the most progressive and regulated shellfish industry in the country and what we are doing here is managing by using good science.”
Dale thanked supervisors for the letter and said renewal of his company’s permit will allow scientific tests and studies to continue along with mariculture operations.
Supervisor Wilson acknowledged that he’s been an occasional critic of Coast Seafoods himself but he said the company’s permit should be extended.
“The intent of this letter is to ask for the extension of the current permit so that the negotiations can continue and to articulate the importance of this industry, of shellfish farming, to Humboldt County, the Board of Supervisors and, I would say, many residents.” Based on the public comments at the meeting, Fennell said the “chief message” is that there is support for Coast’s current scale of operations but the expansion plan is controversial.
Supervisors Virginia Bass and Rex Bohn were absent due to attendance at an out-of-town conference but Fennell said she talked with Bohn and he supports the letter.
If the company’s permit is renewed, the expansion proposal will be changed and re-submitted to the Coastal Commission.
Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said the expansion will “come back around and we’ll get to wrestle with doing a support letter with that as well” and for now, a “strong message of support” should be issued with regard to the permit extension. Supervisors unanimously approved sending the letter to the Coastal Commission.