Harbor District to Vote Again on Oyster Expansion
Another contentious vote on whether to allow Coast Seafoods to expand their oyster farming operations is happening this week. On Tuesday, February 28, the Humboldt Bay Harbor Recreation and Conservation District will vote for the second time this year on whether or not to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) submitted by oyster grower Coast Seafoods outlining an expansion of its mariculture operation. To accommodate what is expected to be a big crowd, the meeting will be held at the Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way, in Eureka, starting at 6:00 pm.
The original vote was taken back on January 19 when the expansion failed to pass. There were two votes in favor and one against. With Commissioner Greg Dale recusing himself as an employee of Coast and the Division 3 seat empty (vacated when Mike Wilson became a county supervisor) it would have taken a unanimous vote of the three commissioners present to certify the FEIR.
Lone dissenter Larry Doss echoed concerns of many in the recreational use community who see the project as potentially denying them traditional access to public waterways. About the new vote, Doss raised another issue. “The one issue that I don’t see getting resolved on the 28th is if this permitting goes through, what will become of the possibility of other oyster farmers ever getting the opportunity to expand?”
With three yes votes still needed for certification, newly appointed commissioner Stephen Kullmann plays a crucial role in the decision. Kullmann was out of town and unavailable for comment last week.
According to Jack Crider, executive director of the Harbor District, legal advice was procured to ascertain that the exact same motion as was made on January 19 could be brought to a vote again. The vote will be taken on essentially the same document except for a few items Crider characterized as “wordsmithing”. Also, Coast has pledged an additional $50,000 to augment monitoring and clean-up costs. An advisory committee will be established to help guide the project from phase 1 to phase 2, and an impartial third party will be hired on Coast’s dime to verify the results of monitoring.
Division 5 Commissioner Patrick Higgins, a proponent of the Coast proposal is hopeful that the FEIR will be certified so that the rest of the permitting process may get underway. “It is not rational at this point to forgo this potential to create food and jobs when there will be no injury to the ecosystem.” Crediting Coast with “advancing science in Humboldt Bay”, Higgins is confident that the close monitoring of impacts will alert the district to any deleterious effects of the project.
Last week Higgins called a meeting with members of the local Brant hunting community to address their concerns. The Black Brant is a small goose that stops in Humboldt Bay in the fall and again in the early spring on its migratory route. It feeds on eelgrass, and the interdependence of the two species, along with various other members of the north bay ecosystem is too fragile to undergo the risks associated with the expansion proposal, according to the hunters.
“The Brant will not feed around the oyster growing infrastructure,” says Stan Brandenburg, lifelong Humboldt resident and Brant hunter. “Focusing on just the health of the eelgrass completely misses the point of how this will affect the Brant.”
Disturbance to Brant feeding habits has not been adequately studied in recent times according to Chris Nicolai, PhD, adjunct professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Nicolai has studied and published on Brant extensively. He did state that it is well known that in San Quintín Bay in Mexico, Brant are known to avoid feeding near mariculture structures. Nicolai opposes the Coast expansion based on how rare healthy eelgrass populations have become up and down the Pacific coast as the result of a variety of disturbances. He does not feel any further risk to the eelgrass/brant ecosystem should be taken.
Higgins sees the Coast expansion as an opportunity to learn what some of the under-studied effects may be. He is satisfied that the science used in Coast’s EIR adequately shows the project is safe for the species of concern. “Our community needs to get to yes. We have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge here,” he said. “If this works, people will laud us.”
Monitoring of the project will be thorough. According to Cassidy Teufel, environmental scientist for the California Coastal Commission, the details of the monitoring plan are still under construction, but annual reports will be submitted and at the end of three years it will decided whether or not Phase 2 of the project will be implemented, adding another 91 acres of oyster growing area. “Some impacts take a long time to be seen, others are more dramatic.”Teufel acknowledges that there is “a lot of uncertainty” about the effects of the expansion’s 10-foot spacing of oyster-growing longlines as opposed to the current beds spaced at just 2.5 feet which have known deleterious effects on eelgrass. This is at least in part due to the fact that because eelgrass has been newly recovering in the north bay since dredge-style oyster growing was halted in the mid 2000s, it is difficult to speculate what effects a previously untried modification in line spacing will have on the plant.
According to Nicolai, Humboldt Bay is one of very few intact eelgrass ecosystems remaining in the world. Teufel states that Humboldt Bay’s eelgrass has traditionally demonstrated a poor success ratio of recovery which is why developers are charged with a 4-1 mitigation ratio, meaning that the onus is on the project to replace any eelgrass at a ratio of four times what is lost.
Local retired attorney, hunter and naturalist Steve Rosenburg does not feel the mitigation measures to be taken for eelgrass adequately address other problems oyster growing infrastructure presents to members of the community who use the bay recreationally, nor to the Brant. Citing a January 19 letter to Jack Crider from the California State Lands Commission, Rosenburg reiterates concerns that both Brant and hunters as well as other recreational boaters will be hampered by the physical presence of oyster growing structures.
According to Sheri Pemberton of the State Lands Commission,
The District must make findings that the permit is necessary to “promote safety, health, comfort, and convenience of the public, and that such proposed uses will not have any substantial adverse environmental or ecological effect. The District may determine a lease is required by public convenience and necessity only if it finds the use is (1) reasonably required to promote area growth and does not adversely affect the environment or ecology of the area to any substantial degree and (2) will not produce an unreasonable burden on the natural resources and aesthetics of the area, on the public health and safety, and on air and water quality in the vicinity, or on parks, recreational or scenic areas, historic sites or buildings, or on archeological sites in the area….staff believes that Project-related human activities and equipment within and adjacent to the revised Project area may pose unacceptably high impacts to black brants’ foraging habitat and behavior. Humboldt Bay is a regionally significant habitat foraging area for brant. Thus expanding facilities would affect them….because they would tend to avoid the entire envelope of the facilities and the increased vessel traffic would disrupt their behavior and roosting. Wildlife advocates and recreational users (e.g., hunters) share this continued concern. Stress and disruption of brant on the Bay could be reduced further if the areas proposed for expansion (depicted in Figures 5.8 and 5.9 in the Final EIR) were further consolidated to reduce the overall envelope of activities.
Another concern for Rosenburg is what he feels is the district’s lack of analysis of “cumulative effects” of Coast’s project. Tribal land use, opportunity for smaller independent growers, and other species of birds, fish, and aquatic vegetation all stand to be affected by the expansion.
California Audubon Society’s Seabird and Marine Program Director Anna Weinstein sees the Bay as “an international treasure you can be proud to protect, and an economic engine supporting profits and jobs related to Dungeness crab, salmon, groundfish and birds.” Weinstein states,
[A]quaculture is part of a diversified economy for your area and the key is balance. The current footprint should only be expanded minimally, into less sensitive areas, and only for growers other than Pacific Seafoods. [Pacific Seafood Group purchased Coast Seafoods in 2011] This is a company that recently bullied your Humboldt Dungeness crab fishermen over pricing resulting in a coastwide strike and the loss of millions of dollars in revenue. Is this the company you want controlling even more of your bay?
Weinstein’s concern about Pacific Seafoods’ business practices is echoed by member of the local native Wiyot tribe Alan Miller. Speaking as an individual rather than for the tribe, Miller cites greed as being a chief motivation for the expansion project. He also feels that considering Pacific’s and Coast’s deep pockets, it should be able to provide better than minimum wage jobs in the community.
Miller also feels a look at the “larger ecosystem” involved with this decision has not been adequately taken. “Native peoples in Alaska are dependent upon Brant eggs for subsistence, and damage to the Brant population could threaten this traditional harvest” that has gone on for millennia.
Chris Peters, Yurok tribal member and President and CEO of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples in Arcata says that the expansion project represents a significant encroachment upon native land. Tuluwat (aka Indian Island) will become “lined with oyster shells” and oyster-growing infrastructure will hamper ceremonial activities the Wiyot tribe has only recently been able to resume.
With Peters’ help, the Wiyot Jump-dance ceremony, a “world renewal and earth-healing” ritual was conducted by the tribe two years ago on Tuluwat for the first time since the 1860 century massacre nearly exterminated the Wiyot and put an end to the tribe’s cultural events.
Both Miller and Peters feel that the Wiyot were not consulted sufficiently by the Harbor District throughout the permit planning process. The district has invited tribal members to a meeting on Monday, February 27 in an attempt to bring them into the conversation. This will be the first opportunity for what Peters calls a “government to government” consultation.
Peters also voiced what many environmentalists nationwide have expressed in recent weeks as the Trump administration announces almost daily that environmental protections standing in the way of business interests will be dismantled.”We are very concerned that we will lose these safeguards,” he said.
At least one international safeguard was put into place by the United Nations in 2007. While not strictly binding international law, the UN “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People” spells out the requirement that governments obtain Indigenous Peoples’ “free, prior, and informed consent” before embarking on any development project or other action that would affect the Indigenous Peoples’ territory. Peters does not feel this international requirement was met by local project planners.
If the vote taken on Tuesday allows the Coast project to move forward there will be several local, state, and federal permitting and approval steps before the expansion may actually be implemented. Government agencies will gather information necessary to weigh the pros and cons of the proposal, and more modifications may be suggested to assure environmental and cultural protections.
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