Oyster farm expansion hits snag

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA – Lack of a quorum has forced the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Board of Commissioners to delay action indefinitely on the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Coast Seafoods project to expand its oyster harvesting by 191.3 acres.

It originally asked for 622 acres and currently farms about 300 on Humboldt Bay.

A motion to approve the 471-page impact report, extensively revised to meet environmental concerns, failed Jan. 19 on a vote of 2-1. That was one vote short of three required for approval by the board’s five members.

Fifth Division Commissioner Patrick Higgins and Fourth Division Commissioner Richard Marks voted in favor.

First Division Commissioner Larry Doss voted against on grounds that the impact report does not take into account the presumed environmental impact on avian hunters.

Doss also objected that although “Coast has done a tremendous job” with its project proposal, the impact report failed to weigh the cumulative impacts of expanded harvesting on small-scale oyster farmers.

“This is a state lands trust issue ... on the importance of taking into consideration every aspect of public use” of the bay, he stated, although several local farmers spoke in favor of Coast’s expansion project as good for business and for maintaining a clean bay.

At the end of the hearing, Higgins extensively rebutted the dissents to the report, including his colleague’s.

The quorum shortfall derived from Second Division Commissioner Greg Dale recusing himself as Coast Seafoods manager to avoid a conflict of interest, and from the third division commissioner’s seat left vacant by Mike Wilson becoming a county supervisor.

Uncertain is whether a further board vote to approve the environmental report will have to await Wilson’s replacement.

At a two-and-a-half hour evening hearing last week before the parliamentary hurdle arose, the commissioners and an overflow crowd heard support, opposition and appeals for changes to the environmental report. It is a comprehensive and technical document that contains a lengthy series of polygonal pros and cons.

“It’s all intertwined,” Doss explained.

As lead agency, the district board considered the environmental report at length in the form of a resolution. The packed assembly filled the small Harbor District conference room on Woodley Island, overrunning the 50-seat occupancy limit and trailing out the front door, sitting on the floor in front of the dais and overflowing into an anteroom.

The stalled environmental report affirms that Coast’s project “will not be detrimental to the air, land, environment and ecology of the land,” subject to 14 terms and conditions spelled out in the farming permit.

At the center of the debate was the “East Bay Management Area Avoidance Alternative,” one of five frameworks considered in assembling the environmental report. In a concession to environmentalists, the avoidance alternative calls for a 30 percent rollback, or 470.7 acres, in the expanded farming area that Coast Seafoods originally sought.

Coupled to that abatement, further mitigation and conservation measures would require the company, among other things, to remove one acre of existing planted area for every four acres of new cultivation.

In response to stakeholder concerns about the earlier draft environmental impact report, the “East Bay Management Area Avoidance Alternative” was conceived to forestall further environmental impacts on eelgrass, Black Brant (Pacific Brent Goose), green sturgeon, boating and on recreational hunting. For example, it would remove all proposed expansion areas from East Bay and consolidate Coast’s operations around Bird Island and Mad River.

“Based on the best available science,” the Final Environmental Impact Report says, “it is estimated that Coast’s existing culture operations result in the suppression of approximately 81 acres of eelgrass growth within Coast’s planted area. That estimate is 56 acres less than the impact estimated by the Coastal Commission” in 2006.

Accordingly, “There is no predicted net change to eelgrass areal extent under the proposed project.”

Although the company has embraced a holistic mitigation, conservation and adaptive management program, it did not dispel the ongoing chorus of environmental objections raised again at last week’s hearing. Some 20 speakers were allotted three minutes each to air their views, including representatives of the Northcoast Environmental Center, Humboldt Baykeeper, the Wiyots, hunters and County Supervisor Wilson, who offered suggestions for strengthening the report while remaining neutral as to its adoption.

Small-scale oyster farmers and several Coast employees also spoke, mostly in favor of the expansion project. Audubon Eureka and California weighed in with highly critical written statements submitted to the commissioners the day before the hearing.

Larry Glass, board president of the Northcoast Environmental Center, rose in defense of eelgrass, declaring, “We shouldn’t lose one blade of it; it’s too precious a commodity.” (The environmental impact report states, “There is no predicted net change to eelgrass areal extent under the proposed project.”)

But Glass said the final impact report “is one of the better ones” if the commissioners “patch it up, fill the holes” – meaning more protection, for example, of migratory birds.

The amended environmental impact report comprises two expansion phases and Glass recommended adopting Phase 1 and collecting the data and scientific analysis resulting from it before giving Coast the go-ahead on Phase 2. That way, the district board would know whether the mitigation and management measures taken over a three-to-five year monitoring period had been effective, before authorizing a second round of expanded harvesting.

Humboldt Baykeeper’s director, Jennifer Kalt, agreed that overall the expansion project “has come a long way since it was first proposed.” But she urged the commissioners to strengthen the management and decision making procedures to be followed in the transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2. To that end, she asked that local nongovernmental organizations, small-scale oyster farmers and independent scientists be included in the advisory panel that reviews the Phase 1 science findings and provides findings and recommendations for Phase 2.

The reality is that government agencies “are always narrowly focused on their mission and their mission only,” Kalt admonished. “Furthermore they can often be politically driven, not by choice of the staff scientists but by the higher-ups; we see that time and time again.”

Hence in her view the need for more grassroots involvement in the advisory panel to thwart political conniving.

A Wiyot representative whose name was inaudible said the district had failed to conduct the required intergovernmental consultations with Native Americans in pulling together the environmental impact report.

Fifth Division Commissioner Higgins disputed that head-on, saying the board had solicited and received responses not only from the Wiyot, but also from the Blue Lake and Bear River Band rancherias.

Supervisor Wilson neither endorsed nor opposed the environmental impact report. He backed Kalt’s appeal for a broad advisory committee. If that panel recommended allowing Coast to go ahead with Phase 2, it should be subject to review by the commission, so that the decision “is transparent and open to the public,” he said.

Higgins promised the commission would review it.



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