Mad River Union
WHARFINGER BUILDING — The California Coastal Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make the next rulings in the Coast Seafoods bid to expand oyster harvesting in the north and central sections of Humboldt Bay, while continuing its existing operations.
If both agencies agree, Phase 1 of the expansion project would likely begin in June.
The pending state and federal reviews will follow unanimous approval Feb. 28 at a meeting of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Board of Commissioners.
At that meeting, the board made several changes to strengthen Coast Seafoods’environmental compliance. First, representatives of the Wiyot Tribe will serve on an ad hoc advisory committee of stakeholders and community members that will evaluate on a regular basis the monitoring data on the expansion’s environmental impacts.
Second, the company will finance a $40,000 Black Brant monitoring plan, which must be submitted to the board’s executive director before any more oyster cultivation equipment is deployed.
Third, under a last-minute edit offered by Fourth District Commissioner Larry Doss, the life of the ad hoc advisory panel was extended to coincide with the company’s 10-year lease.
These additional requirements, among many others introduced since the project’s conception in June 2016, overcame the lack of a quorum at the board’s fractious and heavily attended Jan. 19 meeting on Woodley Island (Union Jan. 31, A1).
A newly appointed commissioner, the Third District’s Stephen Kullmann, provided the necessary quorum Feb. 28 in the absence of Second Division Commissioner Greg Dale, who recused himself as regional Coast Seafoods manager to avoid a conflict of interest, as he had on Jan. 19.
Kullmann replaced Mike Wilson, now a county supervisor.
Under the extensively revised, nearly 500-page Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), the expansion project has two distinct phases. Phase 1 would develop a new 165.2-acre expanse of cultch-on-longline and basket-on-longline oyster culture, with 10-foot instead of 2.5 foot spacing between lines. The wider spacing is intended to minimize the loss of eelgrass from equipment shadowing. (Cultch is the broken oyster shells and other grit that serve as a feed bed.)
To ease the ecological impact of Phase 1, Coast Seafoods would remove its aquaculture equipment from 42 acres in the northeast bay near Sand Island. That’s aimed at reducing the impact on a feeding area for green and white sturgeon.
Only if the mitigation measures required in Phase 1 are as successful as projected—based on extensive, concurrent scientific monitoring—Phase 2 would go forward. Oyster cultivation would expand a further 90.8 acres in the second stage with the deployment of cultch-on-longline or basket-on-longline equipment.
The baskets have differently-sized meshes and water volume capacities.
In compensation, up to 22.7 acres would be vacated in Phase 2, with the actual reduction proportionate to how much of the 90.8 acre expansion goes forward.
The total amount of farming withdrawn is equivalent to 25 percent of the expanded area, regardless of habitat types.
Combined, Phases 1 and 2 would allow the company to expand harvesting by 256 acres, minus the 42 acres to be withdrawn in Phase 1 and as many as 22.7 acres in Phase 2.
These are much smaller apportionments than the 622 acres Coast originally proposed. Currently, the company is operating on some 300 acres.
Adaptive management, a holistic approach, will enable the five harbor commissioners and the ad hoc advisory panel to monitor the environmental effects of the expanded operations on a periodic basis.
The FEIR predicts no net change in eelgrass area because of the 10-foot line spacing, which is considered less ecologically disruptive by some analysts but inconclusive by others.
Coast’s requested expansion area lies within the intertidal and subtidal habitats of North Bay and Central Bay.
The company intends to follow a comprehensive management plan for both its owned and leased shellfish farm expansion, including cultivating Pacific and Kumamoto oysters in existing clam rafts.
The FEIR states, based on the extent of unstructured habitat present in North Bay, that the habitat affected by the enlargement would be a tiny portion, 0.7 percent, of what is available.
“That does not mean that there is no change to these habitats, only that the change is limited to a relatively small component of North Bay,” the report acknowledges.
It notes that various regions of Humboldt Bay have different microclimate and water states, which can affect oyster growth rates and harvest conditions.
“Water conditions in Humboldt Bay are such that one growing area may be closed for harvest while others may be open. Therefore, Coast proposes using areas throughout [its] owned and leased areas for culture, as a risk minimization measure,” according to the FEIR.
The company concedes that the expansion project may cause what it characterized as “the sporadic flushing of birds, due to noise from boats and Coast’s operations.”
But only two to three additional boat trips per day would result under the project, the company says. To curb impacts on hunting, aquaculture operations would avoid primary Black Brant hunting areas in the East Bay during the hunting season.
The increased 10-foot spacing would permit passage through areas planted with longlines for most boats used for hunting.
“Even if hunters choose not to hunt within Coast’s planted footprint,” the FEIR states, “there are still ample areas available for hunting in North Bay and South Bay, including all areas designated as prime hunting areas by the Harbor District.”
Concerning mitigation measures, Coast promises to cooperate with regulators in helping to eliminate pollution, including agricultural, industrial and municipal discharges.
The company pledges to collect water quality samples as part of monitoring programs with federal and state agencies (e.g., National Shellfish Sanitation Program) that track quality trends and pinpoint locations needing improvement.
The company also says it will continue to assist local and state organizations (e.g., Humboldt Baykeeper) to improve water quality conditions within the estuaries where shellfish aquaculture occurs.