Debate rages over oyster bed expansion

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Concerns about a Humboldt Bay mariculture expansion project will be voiced in a letter from the Board of Supervisors, but the letter states that the issues are being raised by a county commission, not the board itself.

A letter on the expansion of Coast Seafoods’ oyster farming area in Humboldt Bay was considered by supervisors and approved – with rewording – at their March 28 meeting.

Two days later, the Earthjustice environmental advocacy group filed a lawsuit on behalf of Audubon California and the California Waterfowl Association alleging that the project review “failed to analyze and disclose the significant, harmful impacts of the project on the eelgrass and other habitat in the bay,” according to an Earthjustice press release.

The letter before supervisors was written and approved by the county’s Fish and Game Advisory Commission and advances several concerns about the expansion project’s impacts.

Proposed as written public comment from the board to the federal Army Corps of Engineers, the draft letter states that “the size and scale of the project will significantly impact ecological as well as economically important components of north Humboldt Bay.”

The proposed letter also states that “given the number of acres and the layout of the project, we are concerned the project will reduce the carrying capacity of the habitat essential for recreational and commercial fisheries such as Dungeness crab and Chinook salmon.”

Supervisor Mike Wilson said the letter includes information “that I find not to be factually correct” and the commission didn’t notice its discussion and action on it properly.

“I think we’re just lacking process here,” he added.

Wilson is a former member of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Commission. The district certified the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the expansion project in February and the next step is approval from the Army Corps and the state’s Coastal Commission.

Coast Seafoods aims to increase its mariculture footprint by about 250 acres, reduced from the 620 acres originally proposed. The company currently has a 300-acre oyster farming area.

Coast Seafoods General Manager Greg Dale noted that four federal and state environmental agencies have signed off on the project.

“I do think the commission would benefit from that conversation – I haven’t had that with them but I haven’t been notified or noticed either,” he continued.

When Supervisor Virginia Bass said that the “flipside of that” is that the district or Coast Seafoods also have the opportunity to provide public comment to the Army Corps.

“It’s a matter of record and it’s a letter that doesn’t necessarily represent the facts,” Dale said in response.

Dale is a Harbor District commissioner but he’s recused himself from the district’s discussions and actions on the expansion project, including certification of its EIR.

But during a public comment session, Eureka resident Stephen Rosenberg said that “the incestuous relationship between the Harbor District and Coast Seafoods has been shocking to say the least.”

There was some question about whether the commission was aware of recent changes to the expansion project. Casey Allen, a member of the Fish and Game Commission, told supervisors that “we did talk about the improvements to the EIR,” including avoidance of sensitive areas in the eastern part of the bay.

“I think the bottom line is, folks are concerned about the cumulative effects of mariculture expansion in the North Bay,” Allen said. “There’s just a lot of encroachment into the tidelands where recreational activities occur.”

Also during public comment, commercial herring fisherman Ken Bates said that the letter “appears to be asking questions” and he recommended to “at least make the effort to put the questions to the Corps and allow them, as a non-judgmental outfit, to look at what’s there.”  Supervisors agreed to do that but at Wilson’s suggestion, they changed the wording of the letter to clarify that its contents reflect the views of the Fish and Game Commission, not the Board of Supervisors.


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