What’s Next for Oysters in the Bay?
Delighted by the news, Audubon California’s Marine Program Director Anna Weinstein said, “It’s very rare for the commission to vote against its own staff report,” referring to the coastal commission’s staff report that was being modified right up to the eleventh hour prior to the June 7 meeting. Last minute changes were made to address concerns from a number of scientists and recreational users of the bay who were not satisfied with the report’s modifications and recommendation for approval.
“This is a huge blow to the oyster industry on Humboldt Bay,” said Jack Crider, executive director of the harbor district. “I’m not sure that the members who voted ‘no’ realize what they have done.”According to Crider, Coast spent $2 million addressing the issues encountered by its proposed expansion plan, including threats to a number of sensitive bay species such as Black Brant, eelgrass, Pacific Herring and Green Sturgeon. But in the end, the commission was not satisfied that the monitoring plans to be undertaken would be able to adequately assess damage not only to the specific sensitive species but to the cultivation area as a whole ecological system whose diversity and health is still in recovery from the former oyster growing practices of destructive dredging discontinued in the 1990s.
Crider feels this decision sends a “big signal” to the oyster growing industry and will serve to dissuade other growers from considering Humboldt Bay for their operations. A signal like this “goes out as a message to the industry not to invest here,” he said.
As far as the pre-permitting process developed by the district and funded by Headwaters monies to help small independent growers enter into operations on the bay, Crider said he will not be investing any more time in the program, claiming the Commission’s decision portends further permitting obstacles. Of areas in the Bay less involved with sensitive species, Crider said, “It’s just too difficult and too expensive to grow inter-tidally in Humboldt Bay.”
Weinstein disagrees. “This creates opportunity. Rather than a blow to the industry, this will allow for a sensible approach to identifying the best growing areas that have no impact on sensitive species.”
Audubon readily acknowledges oyster cultivation as a protected use of the Bay but would like to see it move into the hands of smaller operations. “We want a flourishing oyster industry and would like to see the harbor district retract its certification of Coast’s EIR and find an equitable and fair way to permit growers. We’ve been asking for years for a comprehensive planning process that would help decide who gets to grow,” said Weinstein, who envisions smaller, less impactful operations of 5-15 acres which she believes will afford a solid middle class living for families who will keep the revenue in Humboldt County.Coast currently employs roughly 65 minimum wage workers in its Humboldt operations, in addition to an office staff and local operations manager Greg Dale who also sits on the Harbor District board. Coast is owned by Pacific Seafood, based in Clackamas Oregon, one of the largest seafood companies in North America.
It is unknown at this time what Coast plans to do next. Because they were operating on an extension of their current permit on 300 acres in the Bay, and that operation was folded into the expansion permitting process, the company has just two months to renew its permit to continue growing on its current acreage.
“I’m sure they [Coast] will try to stay in business on Humboldt Bay,” said Crider.
Meanwhile, non-profit environmental legal group Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court in Humboldt County on March 30 on behalf of Audubon California and the California Waterfowl Association against the Harbor District. The suit claims that the district violated the California Environmental Quality Act by certifying an illegal EIR that does not adequately mitigate impacts to sensitive species, nor consider cumulative effects to all members of the Bay community. Despite the Coastal Commission decision, the lawsuit will continue and could take from six months to two years to resolve.
Neither Coast not Pacific Seafood responded to requests for a statement about the decision.