Environmental groups split on oyster farm expansion

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA — The California Coastal Commission will revisit its rejection of Coast Seafoods’ dual requests to re-permit and expand its 300-acre oyster farm, but for now environmentalists have prevailed despite a notable split in their ranks.      

It is all but axiomatic in the wake of the company’s defeat on a close 6-5 commission vote last week that the proposed expansion will have to be scaled back further and reconfigured yet again.

All the same, even the most outspoken commissioner in opposition, Mary Shallenberger, said she did not want to see the Coast operation go away entirely. She criticized the proposed expansion, though whittled down, as still too big and lacking the science to justify it.

She and the other five opponents were reluctant to shelve the recommendations of the commission staff, who had been in fraught negotiations with the company in the 48 hours before the panel’s June 7 hearing and vote  at Humboldt State University.

Shallenberger struck hard,declaring that the expansion permit was not close to being ready for approval.

“It’s way too big,” she objected, and “today I heard very little science ... There’s no explanation of why we would permit [farming] development in eelgrass at all. We should be totally avoiding it.”

Coast Seafoods had committed to monitoring the eelgrass impacts and withdrawing its cultivation gear if damage exceeded a certain threshold.   

Ironically, after hours of testimony, Q&A and discussion, what galvanized the opposition as the Coastal Commission vote neared were phrases that commission staff members had used in presenting the final recommendations.

They characterized the expansion as a test run and described the final, last-minute conditions for approval as a middle way to proceed with authorizing the expansion permit.

Shallenberger was adamant. “What I heard from staff is it’s a large-scale field experiment,” she challenged. “I heard them say it’s a leap of faith and a decent compromise. None of these things are science. This habitat, this bay is way too important a coastal resource for us to use it as a field experiment.”

Commissioners learned in the extensive testimony before the vote that environmentalists were about as evenly divided as they themselves were.   

Arch foes testified on behalf of Audubon California (which considers the expansion illegal), California Waterfowl, the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association and the Wiyot Tribe, which voiced fear that clams might become prey to an over population of oysters in competition for plankton, each species’ food.   

Although Audubon’s Anna Weinstein praised “the changes of the last 48 hours” and the “excellent” staff findings, she remained unalterably opposed. Appealing to the commission to meet its responsibility as the regulatory gatekeeper, she suggested that Coast Seafoods was attempting to exploit a regulatory loophole. “This project would be a non-starter anywhere else in the state,” she asserted. “The only reason [the company could] put a farm in eelgrass is because California Fish and Wildlife lacks jurisdiction” in this instance.

In a prepared statement the day after the vote, Weinstein, Audubon’s marine specialist, praised the company’s defeat as a vindication of the fact “that no other oyster farming operation in the state is allowed to encroach on eelgrass, a threatened marine habitat that is necessary to maintain the coastal food web, because it serves as a spawning site for Pacific herring, crustaceans, and other sea life.”

Likewise, she noted, the Pacific Black Brant, a migratory sea goose that depends on the Humboldt eelgrass beds for food, would now be spared a further company intrusion.

In a graphic and compelling moment at the hearing, Ken Bates, vice president of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association, hauled an oversized garbage bag full of oyster farming equipment before the commissioners, which he charged Coast had failed to retrieve. Loose gear washes up and despoils Indian Island, his decades-long home, Bates said.

One item at a time, he held up for all to see an oyster cultivation basket, a sizable tray, plastic ties, PVC pipe and a tangle of polypropylene rope, detritus which he alleged could be found “all over the marsh.”

Under the rejected permit proposal, the company henceforth would have had to mark all of its farming equipment.

Humboldt Baykeeper and small scale, independent oyster farmers favored the expansion, backed by the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Board of Commissioners. It had already gone on record unanimous support early this year.

Like other backers, Jennifer Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper’s boss, emphasized that oyster farming is vital to maintaining the bay’s excellent water quality and keeping the water disease-free. She credited Coast Seafoods as a responsible steward and “a major ally in keeping our water drinkable, fishable and swimmable.”

Commissioner and Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg also spoke in favor, on grounds that if built-in monitoring safeguards against ecological damage failed, “course corrections” could stop the fallout. He was among the five commissioners who voted in favor.

Under the framework rejected last week, including so-called “special conditions” or compliance mandates, the company would have been required to limit its Phase 1 expansion to 165.2 acres and drop its proposed Phase 2, 90.8 acre follow-on.

Originally Coast sought 917 acres, then retreated to 490. Critics would like the build-up slashed to 50.

The spurned proposal called for removing several existing cultivation beds from within the central and far eastern portions of Arcata Bay. Operations would have been consolidated and the tempo of expansion slowed to meet any issues raised by the intensified environmental monitoring of impacts on eelgrass and waterfowl.

The impact of expanded farming on eelgrass and the Black Brant that feed on it would have been tallied on a five-year timetable. If the eelgrass suffered more than a 25 percent loss, new equipment would have been withdrawn or existing equipment removed in compensation.

Water-borne daylight operations would have been curbed during the approximate fortnight of the Black Brant hunting season.

Inveighing against some of the new conditions imposed by the expansion plan, Peter Weiner, the attorney representing Coast on behalf of its parent company, Pacific Seafood Group – ridiculed by critics as a monopoly and as the “Wal-Mart of the fishing industry” – said some of the latest strictures were Draconian. If left in place, he warned, they could disrupt aquaculture statewide.

He denounced the staff’s description of the expansion as a field test. “This is not a science experiment,” he insisted. “We’ve spent more than a million dollars on research.”

The demand for more monitoring will cost another million dollars or more, Weiner asserted.

The claim that the company is a bully or a monopoly is belied by the support of small-scale oyster farmers, who know that “we’ve helped the industry as a whole,” he added.

Rebutting the complaints of sportsmen about the potential loss of waterfowl, Weiner remarked caustically, “Hunting takes 500 Black Brant a year, not us.”

Coast Seafoods has until mid-August to gain renewal of its existing operations. What happens next to the proposed expansion is uncertain.


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